Tuesday 22 November 2011

Half-truths, white lies and weaselling flattery

Reasons to be Pretty, Almeida Theatre, London

Reasons to be Pretty offers none. Early on, in fact, it looks like an errant ‘r’ has snuck into its title. Reasons to be Petty seems much more appropriate.

Neil LaBute’s play – the third in his trilogy about physical appearance – begins with a monster of a barney: Sian Brooke’s Steph screaming blue murder at her genial, jocular boyfriend Greg (Tom Burke). She’s wounded and furious after his overheard, offhand remark describing her looks as ‘regular’. That it was followed by ‘but I wouldn’t change her for the world’ does nothing to temper her temper.

She’ll later read him a viciously spiteful checklist, in the very public space of a shopping mall, of his own physical shortcomings. Steph seems to be hideously and callously over-reacting and our early sympathies are with Greg: literary, reasonable, gently wry and sensitive as he is. LaBute’s skill is to slowly turn that inside out, without ever making a villain of Greg. His offence is just as much ours. It is society’s wrong and runs deeper than the surface criticism of over-elevating physical appearance.

Because to see Reasons to be Pretty only in terms of looks is to watch a slimline morality play, almost an anti-rom-com. In fact, LaBute plays with that, constantly tiptoeing around narrative clichés. He teases us by dangling the possibility of reconciliation or an unexpected new romance with Carly, the disapproving wife of Greg’s misogynistic best friend Kent.

In fact, LaBute’s play is not simply surface didacticism. Beneath is a further layer of diagnosis and what looks to be about looks is actually concerned with actions. Keeping up appearances, it suggests, goes further than cosmetics. You see it in Kent’s two-faced approach to relationships, cheating on Carly but treating her extra nice, and in Steph’s assertion that ‘flowers don’t save the day’.  In fact, with every nicety so manufactured (each scene is housed in Soutra Gilmour’s shipping container design), it is the very honesty of Greg’s initial remark that makes it so hurtful: ‘It is,’ says Steph later, ‘completely and for all time’s sake true. You meant it and that’s why I’m leaving’.

Greg, then, only seems good because he does no wrong, but he doesn’t really ever do right. His one lie is to cover for Kent, but he never tells the whole truth, because - exactly as Kent accuses – he ‘hates not being liked’. The secret of Burke’s performance (and LaBute’s writing) lies in letting the intricacies of this dichotomy seep out so gradually; he gradually opens our eyes to Greg and, by extension, ourselves.

Even without this smartly ingrained layer, however, LaBute’s writing is psychologically astute and full of his usual flair and humour. It misses the scale of the greatest nights at the theatre – there is no rollercoaster within – but it is constantly fascinating and played with real panache. Michael Attenborough has drawn first-rate performances from his (brilliantly cast) cast. Alongside Burke, Brooke manages to be both repulsive and attractive as she softens in time. Kieran Bew is horribly unsympathetic as the unreconstructed Kent, his mouth a sluice spill, and, as Carly, Billie Piper switches brilliantly from bitchy to brittle.

That Greg’s comment serves as the spark to change all their lives for the better, shows the lies they were previously living. LaBute’s call is for heartfelt honesty as opposed to half-truths, white lies and weaselling flattery. Were we genuine by default, he suggests, the truth might not hurt so much. Perhaps a better title still would be Reasons to be Shitty.

Till 14 January 2012


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