If one thing’s for sure it’s that London Theatreland loves and loves to hate Neil LaBute in just about equal measure. The mere mention of the writer/director’s name - and the misanthropy, misogyny and sometimes shallow provocations associated with his films and plays - is enough to raise the hackles of some. But LaBute clearly has major fans on this side of the pond, judging by the frequency with which his work is staged here. Just opened at the Almeida, Reasons To Be Pretty is the third LaBute play to be seen in London this year, following the Pleasance's revival of his super-controversial 9/11 drama The Mercy Seat and the West End premiere of In A Forest, Dark and Deep, an exceedingly poor and predictable two-hander whose most memorable feature turned out to be the excellent selection of rock songs that rattled the auditorium before the performance proper began.
Though not without its problems, Reasons To Be Pretty is certainly a much more substantial piece of work than was In A Forest... With a title that tips its hat to the Hole song “Reasons to be Beautiful,” the play, first staged in New York in 2008, concludes LaBute’s loose trilogy on contemporary perceptions of beauty, a saga that he began ten years ago with The Shape of Things and continued in 2004 with Fat Pig. The focus this time is on two couples: Greg (Tom Burke) and Steph (Siân Brooke) and Carly (Billie Piper) and Kent (Kieran Bew), and the fall-out from Greg’s observation that, unlike that of a new work colleague, Steph’s face is just “regular.” That comment, reported to Steph by Carly, becomes the catalyst for a breach between Steph and Greg, while Kent pursues an affair with said work colleague, gradually arousing the suspicions of his pregnant wife.
A seasoned director of LaBute’s work, Michael Attenborough delivers a crisp, clear production here, with the snappy scenes playing out on a neat revolving trailer set by Soutra Gilmore and punctuated by lovely blasts of Queen. Proceedings start out shrill - with a bedroom barney so ostentatiously attention-grabbing that you may find yourself switching off in protest - but get subtler as the drama progresses. The tone is, ultimately, less acrid than that of much of LaBute’s output, with some surprising swerves into tenderness in the second half. If a certain shallowness and obviousness still lies at the heart of the material it may be due to LaBute’s tendency to put generalisations about male and female behaviour into the mouths of his characters (“I don’t know why God had to make it so hard to trust you guys!” wails Carly at one point) and pass them off as rude truths.
Though the play feels a little under-populated, the performances that Attenborough has elicited from his quartet are mostly winning. Tom Burke charts Greg’s growth in awareness and conscience with compelling understatement. Playing an archetypal LaBute male - a smugly self-satisfied dumbass and perennial jock - Kieran Bew comes through with a vital, funny, lewd caricature. But Billie Piper delivers the most surprising performance of the evening, managing to quietly turn her security-guard Carly - variously perky, vulnerable and shrewd - into the heroine of the play. Piper's scenes with Burke were the highlights of the production for me, tracing a compelling arc from hostility to complicity that I found far more affecting than the trajectory of Greg and Steph’s relationship.
I must admit to not enjoying Siân Brooke as Steph so much. Thought and hard work have clearly gone into the performance, but Brooke is so full-on in some scenes - and lays so heavily and affectedly into her Yank twang - that she’s an off-putting presence most of the time. It doesn’t help that Steph seems, in some ways, the most poorly-conceived role of the four, a part that’s overly reliant upon undistinguished profanity masquerading as devastating invective, and that’s also the subject of LaBute’s sickliest assumption: that a woman’s self-esteem is entirely contingent upon the way in which a man views her. (What the play seems to lack - and might, I think, benefit from - is a strong scene between Steph and Carly that gives us some perspective on their relationship and perhaps another perspective on Steph as well.)
In spite of this, Attenborough’s production amounts, overall, to an entertaining and enjoyable evening. LaBute fans will of course need no encouragement at all to check out the writer’s latest dispatch from the sex war. But even those who may have felt that they’d had their fill of LaBute should find some very good reasons to enjoy Reasons To Be Pretty.
The production runs for 2 hours 10 minutes and is booking until 14th January. Further information at the Almeida website.