Writer Neil Labute has decided to do an unusual thing as far as plays go. He has written a trilogy of shows all around the same four people. First, there was Reasons to be Pretty which was performed at the Almeida in 2011 and now the second play in the series, Reasons to be Happy, is doing a run at Hampstead Theatre.
Outside a supermarket in a small town in America, Greg (Tom Burke) has just run into his ex-girlfriend Steph (Lauren O’Neil) and the two of them are having a bit of a fight. Well, to be honest, it is Steph who is doing most of the fighting as she has just found out that Greg is now in a relationship with her best friend Carly (Robyn Addison) and she is a trifle miffed about this to say the least. Also not too chuffed is Carly’s ex-husband Kent (Warren Brown) who, by an amazing coincidence is Greg’s best friend. In the time since they split up, both Greg and Steph have changed a bit. She has got married and he has trained as an English teacher, leaving his days of working in the factory with Carly and Kent behind. You might think that life is complicated enough with the four of them and then both Steph and Carly have news for Greg that has the capacity to change everybody’s life forever.
The first thing I need to do is reassure the reader, and potential audience member, that you do not have to have seen Reasons to be Pretty in order to understand and appreciate Reasons to be Happy. Neil Labute has written each play as a stand-alone that can be viewed together but it is not a prerequisite to have done so as each story stands on its own merit. Unfortunately, I personally found that I intensely disliked three of the characters pretty much as soon as they were introduced and the fourth, I started off not liking but ended up grudgingly admiring by the end. So, who didn’t I like? Well Steph was loud, I mean really loud. As Greg said, Helen Keller could have heard her at full throttle. She also struck me as really unreasonable in the way she attacked Greg for going out with Carly. Speaking of whom, I lost all respect for her when she threatened a certain thing – I can’t tell you what here – and in her treatment of Kent. Ah yes, Kent. How to describe him? Well, if you have seen any of the ‘American Pie’ movies then just imagine Steve Stiffler but without any restraint. Kent is about as far from being a metrosexual man as it possible to get whilst still staying on the planet. I have to credit all three actors – Lauren, Robyn and Warren – for bringing these characters to life in such a way as to cause me to dislike them so much.
Turning to Greg. There was something about him that initially I disliked – I think it was the inability to ever give a straight answer to a straight question – but I think he really redeemed himself in the second act and the final scene, superbly delivered by Tom Burke really turned my opinion round in many respects. I still wouldn’t associate with him socially but I probably wouldn’t cross the road if I saw him coming.
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Director Michael Attenborough uses the stage well and Soutra Gilmour’s set – a highly flexible large container-truck – is absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately though for me, the story didn’t work out and although by the end I was wishing the four of them well in the future, I wasn’t thinking all that much about the next instalment and seeing where their lives had gone after Reasons to be Happy. Part of the problem was the relationships just didn’t really seem to work for me. Greg was a nice enough, in a wishy washy kind of way, bloke but I had trouble believing that these two women – who had been best friends since childhood – were willing to fight over him. Additionally, even allowing for the old adage ‘negatives attract’ I could not see any reason that Greg and Kent would be friends. They were too opposite. Greg liked to read whilst Kent though that reading was a sign of sexual orientation. Actually, to Kent, everything that was outside of the ‘norm’ for him was a sign of sexual orientation – possibly the chap doth protest too much. There was some articles in the programme about the dangers of social mobility and what happens when someone tries to move up the social scale, and this was really demonstrated in Greg and Kent’s relationship.
To sum up then, Reasons to be Happy was a nice enough play, well put together and acted with a great set but on a story level I’m afraid it just didn’t work that well for me.
Review by Terry Eastham
Hampstead Theatre presents the UK premiere of Neil LaBute’s romantic comedy Reasons to be Happy, directed byMichael Attenborough and a companion piece to Reasons to be Pretty. The play follows the lives and loves of four friends as they desperately search for that most elusive goal in life: happiness. Full cast includes: Warren Brown, Lauren O’Neil,Robyn Addison and Tom Burke.
Three years after a difficult breakup, Steph and Greg are wondering if they can start over again. The trouble is, she’s now married to someone else and he’s started a relationship with Carly – her best friend. Meanwhile, Carly’s ex-husband, Kent, wants her back, even more so when he hears about her new romance with Greg – his best friend.
A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE PRODUCTION
REASONS TO BE HAPPY
BY NEIL LABUTE
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL ATTENBOROUGH
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including an interval