A week and a half before showtime, and The Shape of Things is already as slick as a high-class made-for-TV drama. It’s going to be fantastic. That’s all there is to it, really.
The play opens with the art student Evelyn, husky, self-possessed, delicately ironic Evelyn, stepping over a line with a can of spraypaint. Adam, the nervous young security guard, asks her to step back on the right side of the line. She doesn’t. He’s stymied. The conversation has the awkward weirdness of symbolism at this point, and you worry for a moment that you’ve been plunged in medias res into one of Caryl Churchill’s nightmares, but things soon settle into the easy-flowing, dynamic, soap-opera tone that comes to characterise this production.
Evelyn soon twists Adam round her little finger. Before he knows quite what’s happening, she’s sprayed an enormous penis on the priceless statue he was guarding, her phone number on his jacket, and her face all over his dreams. She takes him over, moulding his body, burning his clothes, reshaping his nose, warping his friendship with Phil and Jenny, the play’s only other characters. Twist. Yank. Snip. Then comes the brutal denouement, which transforms all this gentle romantic comedy into stark philosophy.
Sophie King’ Evelyn is the lynchpin of this play, and she pulls off the part with unforgiving intensity. It would have been very easy to play Evelyn with the kind of indie insecurity peddled by Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but King keeps up a nasty, domineering edge throughout an excellent performance. Meanwhile Joe Murphy brings the same gawky charisma to The Shape of Things that he brought to Equus, reminding you forcibly of Scott Pilgrim landed with Ramona Flowers. Their relationship is credible and compelling, helped along by painstaking attention to little details – the motions of their hands, and the minutiae of their expressions.
Cassie Barraclough, making her directorial debut at Oxford, has stripped this drama down to the point where it is hard to fault. Such flaws as it has – the lack of depth in Rob Jones’ Phil, for example, or the slightly forced rhetoric of the debates about the nature and morality of art – lie more with Neil LaBute’s script than with the cast. This is compelling drama, short on sticky rom-com sentimentality and long on menace and realism.
Lift your battered eighth-week body out of its habitual slump in the library and drag it over to the Burton Taylor for a little over an hour – you won’t regret it. The Shape of Things is straight-up, refreshing and powerful liquor.