Theatre: Good reason to watch this witty love story

It’s complicated: Reasons to be Happy

Neil LaBute’s plays are normally cruel, violent, cynical and misanthropic; but Reasons to be Happy at Hampstead Theatre is a sequel to Reasons to be Pretty (which was staged at the Almeida by Michael Attenborough in 2011) and is in the same gentle American key. The dialogue, though, is sharp and witty. Attenborough once again directs.

The same four characters reappear; but the comedy can stand freely on its own two feet – you don’t need to have seen the earlier play to enjoy it.

The setting is a small Midwestern town. Greg (Tom Burke) and Steph (Lauren O’Neil), who were once lovers, meet.

The invective immediately flows. Volatile, ignorant Steph wants them to get back together. But Greg is now with Steph’s best friend, Carly (Robyn Addison), a more realistic woman. Greg’s a decent bloke and wants to do the right thing by both women.

A college-educated teacher, Greg has a social mobility the women (white-collar workers and intellectually his inferiors) lack. The comedy comes from his tortuous vacillation. Burke is very watchable and funny, and his performance is a good reason for seeing the play. LaBute says a third one is on its way and will be called Reasons to be Pretty Happy.

Barrie Rutter’s touring production of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives is a partnership between Northern Broadsides in Halifax and The New Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, which I saw at the Rose Theatre in Kingston. The merry middle-class wives are no longer living in Windsor in the late 1590s. They have moved to somewhere north of Leeds in the 1920s. Sir John Falstaff (played by Barrie Rutter) is thrown into the River Tees and not the Thames.

Shakespeare, under pressure to write fast, wrote the play in prose. There is a tradition that Queen Elizabeth I wanted to see Falstaff in love and that he dashed off the farce in 14 days. It’s a nice story and it may even be true. The dialogue certainly has a filthy, fourth-form schoolboy wit.

Falstaff, broke as usual, decides to seduce two respectable married women, hoping to get some money out of them as well as sex. The wives, livid at receiving identical love letters, join forces to teach him a lesson. Humiliated though he is, he keeps coming back for more punishment.

The cast is generally not funny enough, either verbally or physically. Presumably the wives are doing what Barrie Rutter, in his role as director, wants them to do; but they are over-acting. The production only comes to life in the final scene at dead of night, with the galumphing fairies and three eloping couples on three comically different bicycles.

Daniel Everett, an Evangelical Christian and an academic linguist, spent three decades, from the late 1970s, in the Amazonian forest among the Pirahã tribe. He learnt their unwritten language, a formidable task, and then tried to convert them to Christianity. He failed and in the process became an atheist. He published a book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes about the experience.

Simple8’s attempt to make the book stage-worthy at Park Theatre doesn’t always succeed. The performance has a theatre-in-education feel to it and at times becomes a heavy-going lecture on linguistics.