Monday, 16 July 2012

Review: 'Fat Pig'

The Bakehouse Theatre Company, The Bakehouse, 12-28 July 2012. Written by Neil LaBute. Directed by Jesse Butler.

Tom, a handsome, successful businessman, meets and falls for Helen, an overweight librarian with a passion for war films, in a food court. Tom’s work colleague Carter, and former lover Jeannie, are less than enamoured with their friend’s new choice of partner. Where Tom sees a loving, gregarious woman, Carter and Jeannie see only a frumpy, food-obsessed fatty.
                The question which lies at the heart of Neil LaBute’s darkly funny short play Fat Pig rises early from within its straightforward scenario: will Tom defend his right to love whomever he chooses, or will he bow to societal pressure and dump his unorthodox choice of partner? Fat Pig is a play about how social norms are policed, how individuals and couples are made to feel like pariahs if they do not conform to the unwritten though widely understood laws of living and loving in the 21st century. In this case, Helen’s ‘sin’ is to be a bit fat, but LaBute might just as well have made her a woman with a disability, a vegan or, yes, even a Muslim.
                Elliot Howard plays Tom as a bit of a sap, immensely likeable but ultimately weak. Even when the audience is made to feel that he is contemptible for his lack of courage, Howard keeps us not only interested but more or less partisan; we know his failure to stick up for Helen is gutless and wrong but we sympathise, unsure that we would not do the same in his shoes. Daniel McKinnon, as Tom’s boorish offsider Carter, lacks the devil-may-care swagger his character requires but nevertheless succeeds in turning in a strangely charming performance. Renee Gentle looks the part of Jeannie, Tom’s pretty, sylphlike work colleague and ex-girlfriend but gives a frustratingly one-dimensional reading of what is, to be fair, a challenging and sketchily constructed part. I found Jeannie’s rage at Tom and her undisguised contempt for Helen hard to understand or to believe, and whereas LaBute has Helen make fun of ‘jolly fat people’ stereotypes, Jeannie seems to represent an unreconstructed cliché: the skinny bitch, all good looks and cold eyes, obsessed with physical perfection, angry at men for their juvenility and at women because they are competition. The part seems to have been written chiefly as a counterpoint to Helen’s charisma and amiability and as such succeeds in serving the action and resonances of the drama but fails dramatically because it lacks plausibility.        
                Helen, the fat pig herself, is played with much light and gusto by Julia Mayer. The part of Helen is by far the better written of the play’s two female characters and Mayer makes the most of this. She is warm, amusing and vulnerable in just the right quantities and has perfected a terrific, seemingly unstoppable laugh which endears Helen to the audience almost immediately. The more we like her, the more it seems certain that Tom will abandon her and this is LaBute’s cleverest ruse; to keep us laughing even as we grow ever surer that Tom and Helen will not, as we dearly want them to, ride off into the sunset like two characters from one of the old films they watch together.           
                 Fat Pig is a deceptively well-written play, soap opera light on the surface but full of moments which hit hard in their sharp-edged authenticity. I was surprised at how little director Jesse Butler had to say about the play in his notes for the program but his skilful directorship shows through in the production’s fluency, roundedness and excellent use of space. I would only question his decision to include an inexplicable ten minute interval, unnecessary in a play which runs to only ninety minutes. That peculiarity – and the fact that Gentle and Howard can’t quite create enough intensity between them when the play calls for it – aside, Fat Pig is a fine piece of compact theatre, well-directed and in the main well-performed. The play’s denouement leaves nary a dry eye in the house and this is enough to convince me that Butler and his cast have done justice to LaBute’s entertaining and provocative script.

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