Neil Labute’s The Shape of Things is deeply funny and full of cruel proleptic ironies. It is also horrifyingly close to reality, questioning the motives behind each individual in a relationship and showing a darkness and force of will in human nature that no one wants to acknowledge.
Under Adam Usden’s direction, First Person Theatre Company captured the nuances of power and its movement within relationships with an intensity which showed sensitive understanding of a play whose characters have no sympathy for one another. Elizabeth Clayden, as the feisty art student Evelyn, was in control from the moment she casually graffitied the scene’s location on the white wall at the back of the stage. Her American accent separated her from the other three characters with its persistent and threatening edge. This power permeated her character, from her collectedness at an uncomfortably long moment in the café to her physical dominance in the intimate bedroom scene.
This contrasted well with Steffan Griffiths’ Adam and his unfailing comic timing, which elicited much laughter on more than one occasion. Even at the end when his anger finally escaped (still with traces of Adam’s initial shyness and modesty), his words were riddled with wit which exhibited his intelligence. That Adam seemed to be completely ignorant of this – which is effectively his individuality – and conscious only of the fact that his anger might be another part of Evelyn’s creation, made the cruelty of the transformation all the more poignant. The tension between Clayden and Griffiths was never quite dissipated as Clayden left the stage without uttering her last thought, crucially transferring the uneasiness of the characters into the auditorium as all good theatre should.
Callum Cheatle and Rebecca Mackinnon portrayed Adam’s friends Phil and Jenny with an endearing sense of comfort. The cosy setting of their lounge emanated warmth (which Evelyn and Adam discreetly remained outside of). This scene posed the only real problem which was not quite overcome: although Jenny and Phil’s relationship is meant to be far more relaxed, they do have their arguments. These felt a little hurried over, as their frustration with each other was lost in the attempt to maintain propriety in their friends’ company.
Nevertheless, in her scene in the park with Griffiths, Mackinnon conveyed Jenny’s nervousness through telling body language, coyly twirling her hair moments before giving the oblivious Adam a lingering kiss. In spite of her differences from Clayden’s Evelyn, Jenny too has control over Adam, but Mackinnon’s dominance was careful and soft as she tenderly and pleadingly held his hand.
Cheatle was similarly powerful in his scenes with Griffiths. The brilliant directorial touch of sitting the two boys to one side of the stage in the campus scene to reflect their submission by the fairer sex still left room for power play between them. There was a blend of comedy and violence driven by jealousy as he stood up and sat down, ever unpredictable for the guilt-ridden Adam, who at times felt a little too restrained during this scene.
The way in which the unease reached its climax as the realisation of what her piece actually consisted of permeated through the auditorium with murmurings of disbelief for me exemplifies the strength of this production. It was subtle and unforced, and as Adam, Jenny and Phil sat with the audience watching Evelyn’s presentation, pity pervaded. The bathetic final scene in which Griffiths sat eating an apple, trying to understand, was a little too pointed for me after a play of such delicacy, and the biblical allusion felt contrived since it is such a compelling story in its own right.
However, it seems unnecessarily fussy to deliberate over such a small detail when the staging and set were otherwise strong, from the white stage which contrasted with Evelyn’s immorality to the film clips which seemed to give credibility to her relationship with Adam but distanced it further from reality by making it a production in itself. This was an oustanding piece of theatre, and is to be admired all the more for the complexity – and sadism in some cases – of the characters, which were captured so effectively.