REVIEW: An unsettling look at romance, art and manipulation

The Shape of Things. Pictures by Luise Cartwright

The Shape of Things. Pictures by Luise Cartwright

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The Shape of Things by Neil Labute, The Archway Theatre, Horley, Wednesday, January 14 (until Jan 24)

I feel sorry for anyone who came into the Archway Theatre to warm up on this bitterly cold Wednesday night.

The Shape of Things. Pictures by Luise Cartwright

The Shape of Things. Pictures by Luise Cartwright

The Shape of Things, adapted from Neil Labute’s provocative drama about art and love, has one of the most chilling scenes I’ve ever seen in an amateur production.

But, then again, I should have known what to expect from Labute, who’s infamous for the breathtaking cruelty his characters display during films like In the Company of Men (1997).

At the beginning of The Shape of Things, which is set in a university town in the American Midwest, a nerdy student called Adam is drawn to Evelyn, an outspoken young woman about to vandalise a sculpture. The two start dating and soon Adam’s head-over-heels in love, thinking about Evelyn all the time. “You’re dangerously close to owning me,” Adam muses as he starts changing his life around what he thinks his girlfriend wants.

At first Evelyn is a positive influence as Adam becomes healthier, happier and more confident. However, Adam’s friends become worried as the transformation takes him further away from what he used to be and further away from them.

Things start to get ugly as Jenny, the fiancée of Adam’s best friend Phillip, develops a strong attraction to the former introvert.

This adaptation of The Shape of Things boasts some strong performances from its young leads. Benedict Andrew is frequently captivating as Adam, showing his character’s anxiety and vulnerability in a way that lets the audience totally empathize with him.

Elodie Bass is, once again, very good as Evelyn with her clever, nuanced performance. Evelyn seems to have a sunny personality, but Elodie hints at her character’s darkness just enough for us to detect (perhaps?) some subtle manipulation at work.

Joanna Tripp does fairly well with her first Main House performance as Jenny and is quite good at capturing the complexities of a young woman torn between her loyalty to her fiancé and her feelings for Adam. However, Joanna seems to have trouble with the American accent (to be fair, it’s surprisingly tricky to get right), which sometimes slips back to an English one during her more emotive moments. It’s not a bad performance but the changing articulation can be a bit distracting.

Joseph Booton, who actually lived in the States for a while, naturally doesn’t have any trouble with the accent and offers a fiery performance as the overbearing and boorish Phillip. He’s the least sympathetic character for a while, but as the play progresses, Joseph makes it clear how loyal and forgiving Phillip can be.

The play has a plain, sparsely decorated stage, but director Chris Yeldham uses video and sound to striking effect. A heartfelt monologue by Adam, for example, has sorrowful music playing in the background, which adds to the emotion in the scene without being overwhelming.

The ending of the show also offers an astonishing mixed-media approach by playing looped video footage from a key moment in the plot. Without giving too much away, it creates genuine poignancy and should leave audiences well and truly shaken.