Plays used to end in marriage. Then they anatomised the highs and lows of life as a couple. Now — at least in Neil LaBute’s latest London première — the relationships are all either over or heading that way fast.
Reasons to Be Pretty (Almeida, until 14 January) gives a spot-on depiction of those no-man’s-land months following a break-up, when relations between exes are loaded with an electric ambiguity, and contradictory feelings alternate with bewildering rapidity. After an apocalyptic row in the first scene, estranged Greg and Steph keep bumping into each other about town. Tom Burke lets us see that Greg’s innocent exterior masks both genuine warmth and an irresistible urge to keep on needling; while Siân Brooke’s Steph poignantly fails to break out of the idiom of rage when acknowledging a kindness.
LaBute’s scattergun dialogue is true to form. Strings of apparently free associations trace subtle power shifts over the course of a conversation, and can be hilariously revealing of character — as when Greg’s workmate Kent (Kieran Bew) brags about his latest bit on the side in a series of non sequiturs.
But the dark horse of this production is Billie Piper (above), who, by imperceptible steps, transforms Kent’s pregnant girlfriend Carly from bitchy dependant into formidable heroine. In the final scene, she realises that to face life squarely she will need to make a big sacrifice. Greg, too, finally drums up the courage to make some long-overdue changes in his life before — a Shavian touch — defiantly immersing himself in a book.