Neil LaBute’s Reasons to bePretty isn’t so much about the way people look, or even societal ideals, it’s about the way people want to be seen.
Dropping his audience into the middle of a shrieking argument, LaBute’s opening scene sees Steph (Sian Brooke) wrench a confession out of her boyfriend Greg (Tom Burke) who has committed the mortal sin of calling her features “regular”.
Saying he wouldn’t change her for a million bucks doesn’t seem to compensate and it takes a while for her unreasonable ranting to give way to the devastation his innocent remark has caused. In picking apart their relationship LaBute holds up their most honest needs and expresses them in a naturalistic, inarticulate way, which, despite four years together, Steph and Greg haven’t yet managed to do.
Their rapidly collapsing relationship is played out in contrast to that of their married friends Carly (Billie Piper) and Kent (Kieran Bew) who, with a baby on the way, are distracted by nurseries and names and fail to sees the grand canyon of deceit and delusion that keeps them together but emotionally apart.
Kent’s narrow thought processes, his comments about his wife’s worth being wrapped up in her looks, and his general disregard for the people that care about him is clichéd, but it allows his wife and his friend to measure their worth. His character is a comment on social conditioning and its limits and when he’s around Reasons to be Pretty becomes moralistic, but not preachy.
Soutra Gilmour’s set design is a nod to the boxed in reality of the characters as she places the cast in a shipping container, in reference to the warehouse where they work nights. Though not much to look at from the outside, it feels surprisingly at home against the Almeida’s brick wall and when it opens up to reveal so much going on, it only adds to the intrigue.
While the plot is thin, its simplicity is a good thing. It allows the characters to be indulgently introspective and their discoveries are what make this play so gripping. It’s also revealing for audience members: cynics will nod along as Kent spews a shallow, deluded appreciation of his wife’s bum and the more romantic among us will hold on to a hope that Steph might forgive Greg’s comments or that Greg will find a way to make up for his mistake. While neither of those things happen, it’s still the romantics who are rewarded by a play as sentimental as it is frank, one that shows LaBute revelling in the empathy of humankind as much as the ugliness that he so likes to depict.
Reasons to be Pretty runs at Almeida Theatre until 14th January 2012
Image by Keith Pattison