Monday, 28 March 2016

Theatre review: Reasons to be Happy

Reasons to be Happy is Neil LaBute’s sequel to Reasons to be Pretty, which was itself part of a loose trilogy about body image with The Shape of Things and Fat Pig. Director Michael Attenborough returns to the four characters from the first play and brings a lot with him, including Soutra Gilmour's unusual shipping container set, a soundtrack inexplicably dominated by Queen songs (except this time there's an equally baffling diversion into Genesis,) and the leading man, Tom Burke, who once again plays Greg, now a substitute English teacher. The venue has changed though - Attenborough no longer runs the Almeida so has returned to Hampstead - and so have the rest of the cast, playing the man and two women closest to Greg, as he discovers the pitfalls of dating within a small circle of friends.

Three years after the events of the first play, he is now dating Carly (Robyn Addison,) a fact that's making his ex Steph (Lauren O'Neil) uncomfortable.

It turns out it's not the awkwardness it's put between her and Carly that bothers Steph, so much as the fact that she's starting to wish she had Greg back. This being a LaBute play, it's not a huge leap for Greg to start seeing both women, trying to figure out which one he wants while also contemplating a career change and move to New York State that wouldn't involve either of them.

A further complication is Greg's best friend Kent (Warren Brown,) who also happens to be the father of the child Carly had back when she was Billie Piper. Perhaps it would be better seen less than the five years it's been since I saw Reasons to be Pretty, but I wasn't left convinced there was a good reason to revisit these characters. Billed as a romantic comedy, Reasons to be Happy is actually fairly short on the dark comedy that often typifies LaBute's work, leaving it as a couple of hours of angst from an increasingly unlikeable Greg.

The casting of two actresses who look uncannily alike is presumably deliberate, but it does accentuate the fact that there's very little to distinguish between the female characters - they're both very much dumb blonde stereotypes, a fact hammered home when one of them (or possibly the other one) has never heard of Brown University or Kurt Vonnegut. I wondered if the play was designed to be played in rep with Reasons to be Pretty on the same set, as the writing twists itself round in circles to justify why the characters still spend most of their time in the staff kitchen of a company most of them don't work at anymore. The fact that both Phill and I were constantly getting distracted by odd details in the set dressing (someone in there really likes spam; the kitchen only has a microwave to cook with so what are they planning to do with all that uncooked rice - do they get a lot of wet iPhones? if he's moving to a part of New York State near Rhode Island, that guide to new York City probably won't be hugely useful) doesn't say much about how much the play itself did to hold our interest.

Reasons to be Happy by Neil LaBute is booking until the 23rd of April at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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