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Monday 19 December 2011

Reasons to be Pretty, Play by Neil LaBute, Almeida Theatre, London, 8* out of 10

Neil LaBute's play Reasons to be Pretty gets off to an explosive start in a young couple's bedroom when Steph (Siân Brooke) confronts her boyfriend Greg (Tom Burke) about a remark he has made to his friend Kent (Kieran Bew) at work that day. Kent's pregnant wife Carly (Billie Piper) who works as a security guard at the CashCo supermarket with Kent and Greg, has overheard the remark and told Steph about it: Kent had gone on about a new “hot” young woman employee in Accounts and Greg had said that he finds Steph's face quite plain and yet is very content to be with her. Steph wants Greg to own up to what he said. She is angry and finds it unacceptable that he should not think her pretty. Is it worth making so much out of this kind of remark even if it were (objectively or subjectively) true?

Greg is a nice enough fellow who has settled into a comfortable routine. As a result of Steph's readiness to follow through on her feelings of hurt and anger towards him, he is shaken up. Taking a lead from her, he begins confronting his own complacency and lack of drive both in his friendships and in his professional life.

Reasons to be Pretty is a resolutely American Play. Its protagonists are average Americans (average not being an insult in this context in the USA) wanting something better for themselves, not just economically. But how will this play out?

LaBute is a master of capturing contemporary language in the intelligent, fiercely funny dialogues between his characters. With the character of Greg he has created a modern, intelligent male, who has to decide whether to see himself as the innocent victim of his girlfriend's exaggerated sensitivity or to look deeper and act. Will Greg be man enough to face this challenge?

The production by Michael Attenborough is fast paced and precise, the set by Soutra Gilmour is inventive, the music well chosen and integrated. As a result of the pregnancy of one of the actresses and based on suggestions from Attenborough, LaBute has rewritten parts of the play for this, its UK premier If anything this has enriched the play.

The four actors are excellent. Tom Burke as Greg gives an outstanding performance, and Siân Brooke movingly rises to the demands of a complex role. Definitely worth a visit to the Almeida.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Carnage, Film, directed by Roman Polanski, written by Yasmina Reza, 8* out of 10

In their New York apartment, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C, Reilly) Longstreet host a meeting with another white upper middle-class couple, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) Cowan. Their two teenage sons have come to blows with potentially costly dental cost consequences for one and possible exclusion from their prestigious private school for the other. In the age of truth and reconciliation commissions and mediation, Penelope Longstreet and Nancy Cowan have agreed to address the conflict in a most adult, civilised and conciliatory manner with no third parties involved. Their husbands go along with this, more or less enthusiastically. As the story begins, it appears that the couples have managed this process in textbook fashion. Having apparently achieved their objective, all that is left, is for their meeting to unwind. All four are however, a little bit too wound-up inside to part company without casually making a point or two.

The French writer Yasmina Reza gained international fame as the author of the play “Art”. In it four French yuppie male friends fall out over a modern painting which one of them has acquired. “Carnage”, based on her play "God of Carnage", is a worthy successor to Reza's first theatre hit. She is very skilled at holding up the mirror of irony to exactly the type of person who will go to see her plays or films. She does this with sharp wit and an empathic sense of humour. What drives us to perform such social acrobatics? Do we want to seem reasonable and civilized, so we can look at ourselves in the mirror with a self-satisfied air? Do we reluctantly believe we need to show our uncivilized, rude and violent teenage children how to deal with conflict the “right” way? Do we want to teach those other parents a lesson about how to bring up a child properly, while demonstrating to them that we did that; never mind if the awkward, sweaty intermediate result of our efforts does not look even to us like an unqualified success? Do we want to show our peers that our professional success is bigger than theirs, or, if it is not, that our cultural refinement is? Or do we really just want to do “the right thing”?

In this film, Yasmina Reza explores all these avenues. She does this without letting the story escape into absurdity and fantasy. Situations like this are very likely occur in real life and are already absurd enough.

All four members of the star cast give excellent performances without overdoing it. The non-American members of the cast, Kate Winslet (who is English) and Christoph Waltz (who is Austrian) successfully portray a New York power couple. Veteran film-maker Roman Polanski has weathered the most recent twists and turns of his private life without losing his well honed director's touch. He has produced a quality film and brought to bear his experience and his skill of letting the camera tell a story with wit and humour sometimes without the need for any dialogue whatsoever.

Carnage would work as well as an ensemble play as it does as a film. This ironic look at the wealthy New York liberal has been produced with a largely European creative team as a European film. The result is definitely worth seeing.