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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Almeida


  Tom Burke/ Ph: KeithPattison

At the top of the reasons-to-be-pretty list is that your boyfriend is far less likely to say that you are ugly.
The third play in Neil LaBute’s trilogy, which explores how the way we look influences the way we are treated, deconstructs a perfectly good relationship. A little context is needed. Greg didn’t say that Steph was ugly to her face. And the comment was never meant as an insult, merely an observation. What he doesn't realise, however, is that this is the kind of context that makes the insult even worse. And because Greg was overheard by Steph’s pregnant best friend, security guard Carly, Steph knows all about it. 
The play opens in the white heat of the ensuing row. Steph’s interrogation eventually forces a change of position from Greg – from one of denial, to one of denying that what he said is worth getting upset about. When the slugfest abates, Steph’s position becomes clearer. This is not just a “girl thing” about vanity, she explains, but about a basic need to be perceived as beautiful, if not by the world, then at least by the man you love and live with. It is a point of view Greg begins to understand only as his cosy, four-year relationship with Steph disintegrates. Witnessing the process in Michael Attenborough’s well-acted and energetic production, is a little like watching a favorite woolen jumper slowly unravel.
For a writer whose talent lies in revealing the cruelty of so-called civilized people, it is possible to detect in Reasons to Be Pretty a mellowing of the ruthless spirit that created plays such as The Shape of Things and Fat Pig, the earlier works in LaBute's trilogy. The title role of the latter play refers to an overweight woman. And although in that work the author’s target appears to be the prejudice of the thin, as is usually the case with LaBute, one senses that the author is a dispassionate observer rather than the disapproving kind. Not this time, though. It appears that LaBute's moral compass is pointing north, albeit his dialogue is needle-sharp as ever. 
Through Greg we see LaBute’s rejection of the alpha male at his most macho. Here the he-man is embodied by Greg’s unreconstructed buddy Kent (Kieran Bew), who has no qualms about cheating on his pregnant girlfriend Carly. I don't mind admitting that Kent’s comeuppance is a deeply satisfying scene. And if you think such satisfaction is to be too judgmental about a bit of male bad behaviour, that surely depends on how bad the behaviour is. Remember that LaBute here casts the man who called his girlfriend ugly as the good guy.

For this U.K. premier, Soutra Gilmour’s design cleverly uses a revolving steel cargo hold to house both Greg’s apartment and the warehouse where he and Kent work nights. And as Greg, Tom Burke reveals a latent – and late – decency in the man whose casual comment wreaks so much damage. Siân Brookes is altogether far too good-looking for any boyfriend to describe as ugly. But when it comes to men her Steph transmits a guileless honesty that movingly matures into something like wisdom. If I had to pick one outstanding performance in this strong cast, however, I’d go for the former Dr Who sidekick Billie Piper. No actor can cry better than Piper and here she is utterly convincing as a hardworking blue-collar American who eventually reveals that beneath the toughness there beats a heart – a little like LaBute.    


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