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Reasons to be Pretty, Almeida Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Reasons to be Pretty, Almeida Theatre

Reasons to be Pretty, Almeida Theatre

Neil LaBute's latest is another darkly comic account of the battle of the sexes

Here's looking at you, kid: Billie Piper and Tom Burke in Neil LaBute's 'Reasons to be Pretty'Photos by Keith Pattison

This needs confessing. Neil LaBute and I have an uneasy relationship. David Mamet - in Oleanna or Boston Marriage mode – also gets under my skin. It’s a close-run thing: misogyny exposed, or the thing itself? After Fat Pig (2004) and The Shape of Things (2005), Reasons to be Pretty is the third in LaBute's trilogy of plays about female appearance, and his seventh collaboration with the Almeida.

It must be LaBute’s most adult, moral and seriously comic exploration yet of society’s obsession with female beauty and the male gaze through which so many women still see themselves.

Once again I find myself conflicted but disarmed. In the past, LaBute has set up situations and audience expectations only to pull the rug out from under us. He does that here, too, but more romantically than before, even perhaps more predictably. It starts off at a high pitch. A stand-up row between Siân Brooke’s twentysomething Steph and her long-term boyfriend, Greg, is precipitated when Steph’s friend Carly (Billie Piper) tells her that Greg has described her to his best mate and fellow factory worker Kent as “ugly”. Steph is distraught. It is the one word she finds impossible to forgive, the one word guaranteed to undermine her already shaky sense of self.

The two women at first seem one-dimensional: Steph is neurotic and Carly blonde but none too bright

Typically, LaBute makes this opening exchange – verbal fisticuffs that are linguistically poverty-stricken - uncomfortably amusing. (Steph is way, way, way OTT). Greg – played with deliciously perplexed insouciance by Tom Burke – argues that he never uttered the offending word. Comparing her with a new beauty in the office, he suggested her face was more “just regular”: “I wouldn’t trade her for a million bucks,” he adds. Greg thinks this is a compliment.

You could say Reasons to be Pretty amounts to a whole hill of misunderstandings brought about through sloppy use of language. It does, of course – and this is where LaBute is so cunning – have particular baggage for women who read into words what they already feel about themselves. But LaBute goes on to show how this applies to the male of the species. Reasons to be Pretty is at once another darkly comic excavation of the battle of the sexes which also charts a stark, highly moralistic male learning curve. It is sharp-shooting, eminently entertaining and often painful to watch.

If there is a structural flaw it is the presentation of Greg as the hero (pictured right: Tom Burke with Siân Brooke); he walks away with all the honours as the upright, quiet American who does the decent thing, finally unafraid to stand up to the bovine Kent (Kieran Bew, loathsomely credible). Greg reads Poe and Hawthorne, for goodness’ sake, and will eventually chuck in his mind-numbing job stacking boxes and go back to college. Kent, a bragger who puts down the pregnant Carly (whom he’s happily two-timing), reads Sunday’s throwaway freebie rag. Chauvinism, LaBute seems to argue, is a cover-up for insecurity.

There are, though, problems with Reasons to be Pretty. The two women at first seem one-dimensional: Steph is neurotic and Carly blonde but none too bright. But the beauty (or sentimentality?) of LaBute’s creation is that such impressions gradually soften and are given context. But LaBute could have explored the friendship of Steph and Carly in more depth. The female characters have as many lines and Brooke and Piper both give transfixing performances, but they are still to some extent a means to an end: LaBute’s laudable goal is to expose sexism.  

Michael Attenborough’s pumping production, however, is a corker with snatches of hard rock and heavy metal blasting out between scene changes of Soutra Gilmour’s huge rusting crate and clever trailer-sized interiors. Not exactly trailer-trash lives, though this is certainly a journey into the blue-collar underbelly. LaBute’s dialogue delivers tenderness as well as humour in describing these American workers’ difficulties of communication. It may be middle, urban America but it could be downtown Middlesborough, Gateshead or Luton. Or the caff round the corner.

  • Reasons to be Pretty at the Almeida Theatre until 14 January, 2012
It is sharp-shooting, eminently entertaining and often painful to watch


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Some Girl(s) isn't part of LaBute's 'beauty' trilogy. The Shape of Things is the other one. Which focuses on the changing appearance of a male character, not female appearance. Also, no confession needed. I now just assume that reviewers find LaBute mysogenistic. It seems to be a lazy consensus based on a few works. Taking a wider sample from his body of work, men seem to come off worse. I understand the accusations of misanthropy more, even if I don't agree.

Thanks, have amended the 'beauty' trilogy.

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