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Review: Reasons to be Pretty

Almeida Theatre, London N1

    Billie Piper (here with Tom Burke) convincingly combines vulnerability with a blue-collar toughness
    Billie Piper (here with Tom Burke) convincingly combines vulnerability with a blue-collar toughness

    The nicest guy in Neil LaBute's play says that his girlfriend is ugly. Imagine what the nastiest guy is like.

    Few playwrights are as ruthless on men behaving badly as LaBute. In Reasons to be Pretty, the final play in his trilogy about how we judge each other by the way we look, Greg's comment is overheard by Steph's best friend, Carly, who reports it back. The play opens during the ensuing slug-fest. But the real fallout is revealed in the scenes that follow, as Greg's relationship with Steph disintegrates.

    LaBute is interested in the fact that women need the validation of boyfriends in order to feel good about themselves. On one level, hairdresser Steph instinctively knows that a boyfriend who does not love his girlfriend's looks, does not love his girlfriend. On the other hand, Greg's macho friend Kent loves the way his security guard girlfriend Carly looks, but that does not stop him from sleeping with another woman.

    In a nicely underplayed performance as intelligent underachiever Greg, Tom Burke captures all his character's saving graces: the languid wit, a latent decency and, very movingly, the dawning realisation that he has profoundly wounded the woman he loves. In the role of Steph, Siân Brooke transmits the humiliation behind the rage and, as Kent, Kieran Bew is a fittingly two-dimensional brag artist. His comeuppance is deeply satisfying.

    But the most eye-catching performance in Michael Attenborough's gripping production is from former Dr Who sidekick Billie Piper who is terrific as Kent's pregnant girlfriend. No actor can cry more convincingly than Piper, but here she adds a very convincing, American, blue-collar toughness.

    The evening's minuses include Attenborough's decision to split the scenes with Queen songs played at stadium volume. And Brooke is just too pretty to be the object of the title. The play would hurt more if there was a kernel of truth to Greg's unforgivable comment.

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