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Review Round-up: Piper is LaBute's Beauty at Almeida

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Following The Shape of Things and Fat Pig in his 'Beauty' trilogy, Neil Labute's Reasons to be Pretty, directed by Michael Attenborough, opened last night (17 November, previews from 10 November) at the Almeida Theatre to glowing reviews from the critical press.

Centring on four young friends and lovers and their dissatisfaction with one another, Reasons to be Pretty examines the modern day obsession with physical appearance and what it means to be attractive and stars Billie Piper, Kieran Bew, Sian Brooke, and Tom Burke.

The play, which debuted at New York’s Lucille Lortel Theater in 2008, continues at the Almeida until 14 January 2012.

Michael Coveney

"The scathing row between Greg and Steph which is in full swing as the play starts boils down to the fact that Steph’s heard that Greg described her face to his friend, Kent, as just 'regular' ... The scene is so brilliantly played by Tom Burke and Sian Brooke that you fear for the rest of the play. If that’s the issue, what happens for the next two hours? ... Burke’s innocently decent Greg... is deliberately contrasted with the locker room jock-ness of Kieran Bew’s perfectly cast Kent, and only a writer as good as LaBute could get away with such obvious schematics ... Billie Piper’s delightful Carly progressively proves that she is, well, just a pretty face; and pretty faces have feelings, too. Michael Attenborough’s deft and sensitively pitched production is played inside a huge container, designed by Soutra Gilmour, which revolves and flips open to reveal various locations where Greg in effect receives a series of lessons in loving."

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"The American dramatist Neil LaBute is a master of imaginative unpleasantness ... There is no doubt that he knows how to hold an audience - even if you sometimes hate yourself for becoming so gripped by his dramas. Reasons to be Pretty breaks new ground for the dramatist however... a warmth and maturity that I thought were beyond LaBute’s dramatic grasp ... The actress playing Steph, Sian Brooke, is so clearly attractive that Greg appears to be either myopic or downright stupid ... In Tom Burke’s delightfully wry, wisecracking performance there is a moving sense that generosity of spirit can sometimes prevail over baser emotions. And Michael Attenborough’s sharp and imaginatively designed production, wittily punctuated by the pop songs of Queen, is also blessed with a heart-wrenching turn from the wonderful Billie Piper as the pregnant wife (and supermarket security guard) who suspects that her husband is betraying her. Piper’s mixture of courage and grief in the role is deeply moving and it is wonderful to see the old bruiser LaBute writing with such tender humanity."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"Of the three big-name actresses with London shows opening this week, the pregnant Billie Piper took the laurels with her performance in this Neil LaBute play … The best thing about it is that it features that seldom-portrayed specimen, the understated, stoical American male. The night belongs to Tom Burke... who plays warehouse worker Greg. I’m not sure I was ever convinced he was a working-class American guy but that did not really matter ... Ms Piper, dolled up in security-guard uniform, makes a convincing Carly ... Michael Attenborough’s taut production is helped by an ingenious set which springs out of a large container box like a Swiss penknife … Ms Brooke is excellent as Steph and Kieran Bew does well as Carly’s redneck boyfriend. In all, one of the better things I have seen at the Almeida."

Michael Billington

"LaBute shows how a chance remark about a lover's features can destroy a relationship ... LaBute has the capacity to take you by surprise and he does this, in the second half, by transcending his thesis about the dangers of sanctifying beauty ... Power, even more than beauty, is LaBute's real concern as he here perfectly demonstrates. This emerges clearly in Michael Attenborough's production which is swift, nuanced and precise. Tom Burke also dominates proceedings as Greg by the simple device of keeping his head when all around are losing theirs ... Sian Brooke as his lover slowly enlists our sympathy by indicating that she too is emotionally wounded. Billie Piper is also highly impressive in her gradual revelation of the security guard's fundamental insecurity, and Kieran Bew is memorably odious as the macho Kent. The play may not possess the visceral shock-value of previous LaBute work but it has more humanity and confirms the validity of Bacon's observation that: 'There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.'"

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Billie Piper is the big draw in Michael Attenborough's satisfying production of this new play from Neil LaBute, and she's certainly persuasive as a security guard whose uniform can't mask her self-doubt. It's a brave, touching performance - and the fact that she is pregnant has been neatly integrated. But other members of the four-strong cast make an even stronger impression, with Tom Burke outstanding as a rumpled Everyman ... Kieran Bew does a superb job of evoking Kent's particular brand of mundane villainy; he's a clodhopping philanderer with a touch of feral cunning. And Burke is dry, wry and reflective, making Greg likeable in a beautifully unshowy fashion. LaBute regards the play as a coming-of-age story, and some of the clichés of that genre are in evidence. But it's potent and deftly constructed. We see his sharp understanding of the relationship between language and power. Although he isn't saying much we haven't heard before, this is smart, funny and humane, as well as skillfully acted."

Paul Taylor

"Michael Attenborough's fiercely funny and incisively acted production is a less overtly taboo-breaking piece than its two predecessors in the trilogy – The Shape Of Things and Fat Pig. It contrasts a faithful relationship that founders on a misunderstanding with the deceit-riddled marriage of Kent, a serenely smug and obnoxiously sexist meathead hilariously portrayed by Kieran Bew, and pregnant Carly (Billie Piper), the work colleague who snitched about Greg's indiscretion ... Bille Piper's excellent Carly adroitly crumples into a mass of tearful anxiety and suspicion as she registers the liabilities of being prized only for your looks ...LaBute has described this as his first 'coming of age' play and it does trace the way that the bookish, thoughtful Greg, increasingly ashamed at covering for Kent's infidelity, manages to break free from his friend's arrested misogynist ethos – a graduation clinched in a climactic punch-up ... Not as provocative as its predecessors and unafraid of the obvious, Reasons To Be Pretty offers a fresh, piquant set of variations on the idea that 'love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.'"

Libby Purves
The Times

"Soutra Gilmour’s set is cruelly apt... Neil LaBute’s sharp 2008 four-hander completes a trilogy in which he explores, and deplores, the worship of physical beauty. This one has most heart and depth, and here four immaculate performances weave together with wit, truth, extreme but appropriate swearing and moments of shocked hilarity ... Tom Burke’s Greg is wonderful ... Kieran Bew is sleek, dark, a narrow-focused weasel ... Greg’s decency and sweet sad longing for intimacy rather than mere decoration conflicts with his male solidarity ... But Steph grows in stature too, and Billie Piper as Carly the weary night security guard, uniform incongruously stretching over her belly (“What’s she gonna do, smile ‘em to death?” says her husband cruelly) melts beautifully into vulnerability. Thus a banal tale of small lives becomes something compassionate and lovely. To director Michael Attenborough, an extra bouquet for leaving out from the original (with the author’s consent) a number of unnecessary reflective soliloquies. The play is stronger and finer for leaving them unspoken."

- Natalie Generalovich


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