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Reasons to be Happy (Hampstead Theatre)

Neil LaBute's play is directed by Michael Attenborough

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Lauren O'Neil (Steph) and Tom Burke (Greg) in Reasons to be Happy
© Manuel Harlan

Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Happy is probably the play that Matthew Perry wanted to write. The Friends actor is currently starring in his own mid-life crisis rom-com on the West End, but The End of Longing is a terrible piece of writing. LaBute manages what Perry really doesn't: a funny, coherent play about getting older, love, friendships and people who just don't know what to do with their lives.

This is the second in a trilogy of plays featuring the same four characters, the first one being Reasons to be Pretty. In Reasons to be Happy, we meet up with Greg, Steph, Carly and Kent some years later, still all in their backwater of an unnamed city in the US. Now though, Greg - having broken up with Steph three years previously – is seeing Carly; and Carly and Kent, who were once married and have a child, have broken up. In a chance meeting, Greg and Steph realise they may still have feelings for each other. Greg, with his head always in a book, is at the centre of this strange foursome and has to work out what he wants: Steph or Carly or neither. Through this portrait of four souls – two supermarket warehouse workers, a hairdresser and a teacher – LaBute looks at how social mobility and education can affect lives.

There's probably a reason why the first in the series was LaBute's first play on Broadway: the set up and characters are some of his most accessible. I haven't seen Reasons to be Pretty, and although there are clearly references within the drama to the characters' past it is possible to watch Reasons to be Happy as a piece in its own right.

That said, if you're not familiar with the history of the characters, it does take a while to work out why Greg, much better educated than the others and more acutely aware of the world outside their town, is still friends with the other three – one of whom thinks reading is a waste of time, another of whom has no idea where Turkey is.

LaBute's dialogue is barbed, very funny and very real and he draws the main character Greg very well. But the others are slight, especially the jock bruiser Kent whose story is left dangling unhappily. The women are peripheral characters to Greg's story too, both too keen to be at the whim of a man who so clearly doesn't know what he wants.

Tom Burke reprises his role after starring in Reasons to be Pretty at the Almeida in 2011. He's very good here, delivering LaBute's conversational dialogue easily and fluidly, and dealing with the American accent very well. His Greg is an affable, smirking charmer who you like, even though he is treating the women in his life badly. The rest of the cast do well with what they have too, Warren Brown is great as Kent, and Lauren O'Neil has an alarming ability to ratchet up the anger very quickly: she often looks as though she might explode.

Michael Attenborough, who also directed Reasons to be Pretty at the Almeida, directs a slick production, with a shipping container placed in the middle of the stage that opens out to reveal a different set every time it is turned round. Soutra Gilmour's set is an echo of the world these characters are stuck in: restrictive, self-contained and small.

Reasons to be Happy runs at Hampstead Theatre until 23 April.

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