“I guess there’s a compliment wedged in there somewhere”
Neil LaBute has developed a reputation for fierce writing, exposing the darker side of human nature with an often uncompromisingly abrasive approach, but his new play at the Almeida – Reasons To Be Pretty – sees him adopt a slightly mellower tone to devastatingly powerful effect. Continuing the exploration of society’s obsession with looks and beauty that occupied earlier plays like The Shape of Things and Fat Pig, LaBute also examines disillusionment in relationships and how that can lead to betrayal.
The play opens with an intensely sharp argument between lovers Steph and Greg: he described her as regular in comparison to a new arrival in the factory where he works with best friend Kent and she found out when her friend Carly told her: she is horrified but he doesn’t see what the big deal is and their confrontations reveal cracks in their relationship. Meanwhile Carly is facing her own trials with husband Kent, expecting their child but worried he might not continue to find her attractive – how appearances are perceived is key for everyone.
There is acting of exceptional quality from all four players. Tom Burke is the beating heart of the play as Greg, the catalyst for raging emotionality all around him as he impassively watches on but reminding us too, with some gorgeously subtle work, that he does have feelings too, deep ones. Siân Brooke – so very excellent in Ecstasy – continues her strong vein of work this year as Steph – incandescent with rage in the opening scene but subsequently slowly peeling back the layers to reveal the fragility and depth of emotion that lies at her heart: physically she just completely inhabits the character to stunning effect, her hands in the final scene speak volumes.
Billie Piper is initially amusing as the tale-telling security guard, pregnant and increasingly worried about her ability to keep her husband’s attention and her scene with Burke’s Greg as she tries to force an admission about the infidelity she suspects is heart-stoppingly good, almost unbearably moving as her open features crumple under the weight of suspicion. And last but by no means least, Kieran Bew exudes unrefined masculinity as Kent, possessed of a swaggering cockiness and arrogance which utterly convinces.
Soutra Gilmour’s unassuming container-based set is ingeniously designed, constantly revolving and unfolding to reveal a range of locations and Michael Attenborough’s direction keeps a paciness about the production. But the main strength of this play is in the intelligence and humour in LaBute’s writing which lends an unexpected depth to the verbal sparring, interactions and power struggles here and a humanity which makes this a pretty unmissable prospect.