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First Night: Reason To Be Pretty, Almeida Theatre, London

LaBute's beauty pageant is more than skin deep

Paul Taylor
Friday 18 November 2011 01:00 GMT

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

Her boyfriend, Greg, has been overheard describing her features as "regular" in a conversation with his macho buddy, Kent, about a hot new recruit at work.

Steph reacts as though it is a devastating slight that has caused her world to unravel. Reasons To Be Pretty, the third in a LaBute trilogy that mordantly anatomises our contemporary obsession with physical appearance, opens with a row in which Sian Brooke's Steph unleashes a torrent of abuse on poor, well-meaning Greg (an attractively wry Tom Burke).

She decides to break off the relationship, but not before reading out to him a litany of the things she now claims to have disliked about his person– for example: "Your nostrils make me sick..." She admits she invented some just to hurt him and that she could have loved him even if they were all true. Not now.

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.

Kent can't decide which he likes doing more – bragging about his spouse's gorgeous assets or crowing about his affair with the nubile new recruit. One advantage of having a knockout wife, he maintains, is that it helps you to pull other women ("Some girls like that... the whole competition thing").

Starting off combatively tough and secure in her attractiveness, 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 when you are pregnant, fattening and marriage to a man with no emotional maturity.

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.

It also shows, in an astutely observed final scene between Greg and Steph, who is now on the point of marriage to another man, a couple torn between loving regret and defensive resilience as they ponder the impact of that life-changing little word.

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".

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