Theatre Review: Fat Pig by Neil LaBute, from 2008

Neil LaBute's Fat Pig

Promotional posters for Neil LaBute's 'Fat Pig', 2008

This review is from 2008, from when I first came to live in London, for a month-long work experience placement. With hardly any friends living close enough to meet up, and still getting used to squeezing social occasions and cultural events into the few precious hours after work, I happily decided to take myself off to the theatre, getting a last-minute, single ticket to this production of Neil LaBute’s ‘Fat Pig’, the advertising posters of which had caught my eye throughout the Underground. It was one of the most enjoyable plays I’d seen to date, despite its flaws, and the evening culminated in a gorgeous, carefree walk down Whitehall, on to Westminster Bridge next to Big Ben, The Houses of Parliament, and the Embankment, and a simple District Line train home. I always think of that night as the first of many in which I knew I felt comfortable enough to explore the city and its many offerings alone. Company can be wonderful, but sometimes, quiet contemplation and the blissful freedom to choose your own entertainment at a moment’s notice, without reproach or reason, can be truly magical. 

The moment you step into it, the auditorium of the Trafalgar Studios theatre (on the magnificent Whitehall) with its steep seating plan and seats all the way onto the stage, immediately creates an intimate, informal, almost cosy atmosphere. And with loud, self-consciously modern, rebellious rock music blaring into the space, Neil Bute’s Fat Pig sets out as it means to go on; a play designed to look offhand and comedic, but actually only lightly veiling a rather unsettling snapshot of our prejudices. Arguably one of the last of the ‘–isms’ that are still almost acceptable, ‘fattism’ inevitably provokes easy laughs that other ‘isms’ (such as blatant racism) no longer can. And it is this premise that Fat Pig begins with; that being rude to fat people is really quite funny, that people are fat due to their own greedy desire to shovel all manner of crap into themselves and so deserve any mocking they might receive. And at first, the show plays on our guilty suspicions that the above is all true.

For much of the first half, comedy and laughter ripples through the theatre, with many ‘Oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-he’s-just-said-that-but-I-actually-agree’ moments shocking the audience into guffaws. However, despite being the butt of many a sexist and frankly cruel joke, Ella Smith immediately wins us over with warm self-deprecation, wit and honesty, when all about her are not-so-subtly crippling under their attempts to ignore (or not) her plus-size waistline. Praise be to the director for casting someone who, with the best will in the world, could do with a few fewer chips (as opposed to someone who is ‘fat’ at size 12) but whose twinkle and relaxed confidence make hers the best, most realistic and most memorable performance of the entire cast. Comedic actor Robert Webb (Peep Show, That Mitchell and Webb Look), with his weary, average-Joe appearance and inoffensive manner, just about convinces as the bloke just trying to do the right thing with a woman he can’t help falling for, but seems much more at ease with the superficial quips of the first scene than the emotional lines of the last.

Meanwhile, showing himself to be much more than just a BT-endorsing beanpole with a cheeky smile, Kris Marshall surprises with confidence and perfect timing for the entire duration. Acting as the offensively outrageous ‘voice of reason’, saying, albeit coarsely, what everyone, at some point, privately thinks, his simple character is far more believable than that of either Webb or Joanna Page. The former begins as likeable but ends as weak and disheartening, while the latter is little more than a plot device to further emphasise Smith’s considerable girth, and provide a bit of shouting that allows an inevitably giggle-inducing set of exasperated facial expressions from the rubbery Webb. Although Page (who suits her usual meek, girly characters, such as the famous Stacey from the much-loved Gavin and Stacey, much more than she does this one) did the best she could with a dire American accent and jarring lines, if her character is supposed to represent ‘non-fat’ women, with her over-bearing, two-dimensional jealousy and skinny behind, she has a long way to go. Similarly, the American accents of Marshall and Webb acted only as distractions to their characters, especially as their real accents are already so expressive, and I found myself wishing that the director had dispensed with them altogether; perhaps relocated the play to England or made his characters Englishmen in New York – anything but the constant wavering of unsure enunciation and over-eager posturing. (Conversely and thankfully, Smith is to be commended on her near-flawless accent – I had thought she must be American, but no, like Page, she hails from Wales).

Robert Webb and Ella Smith in 'Fat Pig'

Robert Webb and Ella Smith in 'Fat Pig'

Despite its faults, however, Fat Pig is sufficiently funny, entertainingly witty and just emotional enough to pack a considerable punch by the end of the evening. A couple of American clichés at their worst – the huge ‘I love you’, and others in the vein of ‘I really think this could worrkk’ – had me closing my eyes in embarrassment, but the difference in atmosphere between the beginning and the end was unexpected and uncomfortably real, providing a cold mirror to many of society’s unchanging flaws that the play does not initially appear to proffer. The moving, rotating scenery system is laid-back and predictable, and the whimsical angles, magazines, Kettle Crisps, rock music, abstract ‘captions’ projected onto the stage, coupled with the greenish glow of a Mac laptop bring a warm fuzzy element of banter, self-deprecating satire, fun and familiarity to the proceedings, which goes even further to demonstrate how close-to-home the prejudice really is. Overall, the mix of comedy, crassness, honesty and awkwardness in the play just manages to highlight the complex, unsettling nature of today’s worrying preoccupation with appearance over all else.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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