Few writers have the gift for razor sharp dialogue that Neil LaBute at his best possesses. But of late this perhaps overly-prolific playwright has seemed to be coasting on his considerable talents: the last few of his plays have seemed like little more than a tick-box exercise in controversy (Sexual abuse? Murder? Incest? Check, check, check).
Fortunately, Reasons to Be Pretty eschews this increasingly tiresome habit, but while it stands almost alone in being a LaBute play that has at least one character you wouldn’t mind being stuck in a lift with, it also lacks the originality and innovation that marked out the first play of his ‘looks’ trilogy about body image and society’s obsession with the physical, The Shape of Things.
Reasons is the story of nice guy Greg (we know he’s a nice guy because he reads books and doesn’t call women cunts which, in LaButeland, makes him virtually a Renaissance man) who made the mistake of referring to his girlfriend’s looks as ‘regular’, a slight to which she takes an almost hysterical exception. Perhaps this should be unsurprisingly, since Sian Brooke’s Steph is actually a thin, pretty blonde: had he called her a screeching, hysterical and borderline psychotic harpy, he’d have been far more justified, since her reaction seems ridiculously overwrought.
Played out alongside the disintegration of this relationship – which I suspect we’re supposed to care about, but as they lacked either chemistry or believability as a couple, it left me unengaged – is the fate of marriage of Guy’s obnoxious friend Kent and his pregnant wife Carly. Kent isn’t a nice guy (we know this because he mocks reading, calls women cunts and worries that his wife will get fat after having the baby) and the fact that his wife is pretty still doesn’t stop him cheating with a beautiful (and, importantly, younger) co-worker.
While Billie Piper is relatively sympathetic in this role, she is doubly hampered by an accent that occasionally makes her sound like Marge Gunderson from Fargo and by the fact that her character lacks any real depth: she goes from narky bitch (with questionable motives for reporting Greg’s original remark) to a scared woman realizing her marriage isn’t what she thought it was, but this seems an abrupt transition – in fact, the second half of the play feels as though everyone has had some sort of character transformation during the interval: Greg’s simmering discontent with his friend especially arriving seemingly out of nowhere. Her dilemma is not helped by the fact that Kent (convincingly played by Kieran Bew as the usual one-note LaBute misogynist) is such a prick that instead of feeling for Carly’s betrayal, you’re just pleased she’ll end up shot of him.
There are moments of dazzle: Steph’s retaliatory list of insults to Greg is very funny, there are some individually great lines as you would expect from LaBute, and director Michael Attenborough manages to imbue the piece with occasional flashes of warmth and humanity, qualities usually absent from the playwright’s work. Of the mostly capable cast, Burke is especially convincing as a man who isn’t quite sure how the hell he managed to get where he is. Soutra Gilmour’s set – a revolving shipping container in which all of the action takes place – is effective, though I was puzzled by the decision to punctuate the action with loud bursts of Queen: it felt instantly dating, when a story about workers slogging through a nightshift because they need the extra money is surely timely in our post-crunch world. There is no great insight into society’s obsession with looks here, only a few trite homilies – don’t marry a sexist arsehole, perhaps, or be careful what you say about your girlfriend when her best friend is in the next room – and these simply aren’t enough to sustain a two-hour play.