“That’s like practically incest”
Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Happy actually takes the form of a sequel of sorts to his earlier work Reasons to be Pretty, seen at the Almeida in 2011. Reflecting that continuity, director Michael Attenborough returns along with Soutra Gilmour as designer, reprising what looks like the same shipping container and rather oddly, just one of the original quartet of actors. Tom Burke is back as lead character Greg but the luminous lights of Siân Brooke, Kieran Bew and Billie Piper are replaced by Lauren O’Neil, Warren Brown and Robyn Addison.
You don’t need to have seen Reasons to be Pretty to see Reasons to be Happy but it certainly helps as the play picks up three years later on as their tangled inter-relationships have reconfigured into a new and different mess. Greg and Steph are no longer together but a spark still remains between them as evidenced by the blazing row that opens the show, as it did in Pretty. But she’s married to someone else and he’s having it off with her best friend Carly, who is the ex-wife of his best friend Kent who is in turn keen on getting back with the mother of his child.
Thus the mountains of unfinished business between them all has to be scaled but LaBute’s writing here doesn’t really feel fit to the purpose here, much as I did like the earlier work. Burke’s college-educated Greg is the only fully realised character of the four here, which fatally skews what is nominally an ensemble drama. He’s the embodiment of aspirational social mobility but conflicted by the minutiae of daily life in which he’s found a relative level of comfort and Burke does well (even if his presence as the sole returnee niggled at me throughout, I’d much rather have had an all-new cast).
The real problem comes with the others though, the thinness of the characterisations giving the actors so little to work with despite their best efforts. O’Neil and Addison are given zero chance to demonstrate what is meant to be a major friendship between Steph and Carly or for that matter, give any hint of what might appeal so much about Greg that they would each chase him so. But it’s not just feminism that takes a hit, LaBute’s portrait of masculinity is ultimately as problematic, Warren Brown’s fading jock Kent a polar opposite to Greg’s bookishness but little thoughtfulness comes out of their scenes. As in cinemas so in theatres, a sequel best avoided.