It's like buying a house just as boom turns to bust: my first encounter with the work of Neil LaBute was his glum, pointless, minor 2002 play The Distance From Here. Now I have the opportunity to appreciate what it was like when there was a bull market in LaBute, with the West End revival of its predecessor The Shape Of Things. The story of Adam and Evelyn, the nerdy student and the conceptual artist who remakes him for her own ends (to say more, even now after the release of the film version, would be to give the game away), was greeted on its Almeida première as the most controversial top-notch American play since David Mamet's Oleanna... also, as it happens, now revived in the West End.
I didn't see that earlier production, but to judge by the reviews it received, Julian Webber's revival treads the same general path, albeit now broadened and flattened slightly. Instead of scene changes punctuated by The Smashing Pumpkins, Webber uses undistinguished modern college rock by Fraternity (who?); instead of the almost excessively beautiful Rachel Weisz as Evelyn, we have the rather less magnetic, still-bankable-though-not-quite-as-big-league Hollywood name Alicia Witt; and so on. Simon Higlett's elegant minimalist set captions a number of scenes "A living room", "A lawn", etc, as if they were artworks themselves (and at one point wittily projects the legend "A Cineplex" in the style of one of those awful, jiggling Warners or Odeon gobos).
Witt is personable and efficient, so much so that during one onstage row you can imagine the dispassionate behaviourist in Evelyn thinking, "Now for a little negative reinforcement." Even at his sharpest-dressed, Enzo Cilenti never quite transcends cuddly and sweet as Adam, and James Murray is annoyingly over-the-top as abrasive best friend Phillip. But the play's big twist continues to work, both in narrative and thematic terms: even when you know what's coming, Evelyn's climactic lecture is downright shocking. The responsibility of the artist and the conflict between surface and substance are still powerfully enacted. LaBute's final tantalising smack comes with the realisation that the one remark admitted to be true in the whole affair turns out to have been an intimate whisper which we never heard. About this as about the whole business, we have to make our own decisions, and indeed to make up our own fabrications.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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