“A play with a great personality” – so runs the tagline for Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, currently on at the Burton Taylor Studio. It’s a brilliant and witty description that gets to the heart of what this interesting piece is all about: the stereotypes, awkwardness, shame, discrimination and, indeed, hatred that surrounds fat people (or should that be plus-sized?).
The story is simple enough. Tom is a good-looking professional who one day ends up sharing lunch with and eventually falling for Helen, a librarian who happens to be quite large. His co-workers – a friend who he doesn’t really like and a sort of ex-girlfriend who, come to think of it, he doesn’t really like either – are both scandalised at the audacity of his loving someone who weighs significantly more than he does.
Carter, the friend – a poster-boy for that brand of jocular, juvenile and deeply sexist lad culture that makes one want to projectile vomit – is horrified by Helen’s size, and lectures Tom about the importance of staying away from those who are “different” (old, fat or gay are his examples). Meanwhile Jeannie, the slightly terrifying ex, takes his dating of Helen as a personal affront (“Do you have a thing for fat chicks? Does that mean I’m fat?!”).
The play is well-acted, particularly the two principal parts of Tom and Helen, whose scenes together are a pleasure to watch. Although it is a risk with naturalistic dialogue, none of the actors come across as stilted or fake, but at the same time they do an excellent job at conveying the many moments of cringe-worthy awkwardness and unease.
The performance does suffer, though, from a distinct lack of pace. Scenes could often do with more momentum, ensuring the punchiness of the script and opportunities for comedy are not lost, which they sometimes are. And while the play does shine a harsh light on both our socially constructed ideas of beauty and the prejudice and abuse that fat people are forced to deal with, it does sometimes feel that the premise is stretched thin and not given enough substance, probably owing in part to the need for more pace but also, perhaps, because the script itself seems more like a first draft than the final product.
Nonetheless, this is an enjoyable and worthwhile night at the theatre, and the actors deserve all the praise they get. Especially Tom, who, owing to the final scene being set on a beach, finds himself taking his curtain call wearing a rather tight pair of aquamarine speedos. If that’s not commitment to your art, I don’t know what is.
Fat Pig is playing at the Burton Taylor Studio until 25th October
Photo credit: BT publicity