Reasons to Be Pretty, Almeida Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

Gallantry is as rare as flower-arranging in the world of American dramatist Neil LaBute, so, in a sense, Steph should count herself lucky.

Greg, her boyfriend of four years, has been overheard describing her features as "regular" in a conversation with his macho buddy Kent about a hot new recruit at Kent's warehouse. It's an innocuous adjective, but Steph reacts as though it were a devastating slight that has caused her world to unravel. Reasons to Be Pretty, the third in a LaBute trilogy, opens with an explosive row in which Sian Brooke's raw, excitable Steph unleashes a torrent of abuse on well-meaning Greg (an attractively wry Tom Burke). She decides to break off the relationship, but not before reading out a litany of things she now claims to have disliked about his body – for example, "Your nostrils make me sick because I always have to look up into them because we have the most unimaginative sex a person could ever come up with..."

Receiving its British premiere in Michael Attenborough's fiercely funny, incisively acted production, Reasons to Be Pretty is not nearly as taboo-breaking as its predecessors in the trilogy – The Shape of Things and Fat Pig. It contrasts a faithful relationship that founders on a small misunderstanding about looks with a deceit-riddled marriage predicated on misogyny. Kieran Bew is hilariously obnoxious as Kent, a sexist meathead who can't decide which he likes more: bragging about the assets of his security guard wife, Carly (Billie Piper in a cop outfit), or crowing about his affair with the nubile newcomer – "23, so, you know, starting to fade". Starting out combatively tough and secure in her attractiveness, Piper's excellent Carly crumples into a tearful mass of anxiety as she starts to register the liabilities of being prized only for your beauty when pregnant and married to an asshole with all the emotional maturity of a boy of ten.

More empathetic than LaBute's usual fare, Reasons to Be Pretty is a coming-of-age piece that charts how the bookish, thoughtful Greg breaks free from his friend's arrested ethos. Ending in an astute scene of ruefully unresolved stock-taking with the soon-to-be married Steph, it offers a piquant set of variations on the Shakespearean idea that "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind".

To 14 January (020 7359 4404). A version of this review has already appeared in some editions of the paper

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