Review: Fat Pig

Tragic rom-com or biting polemic?

Joanna Page and Kris Marshall in Fat Pig

Where: Trafalgar Studios, Studio 1

When: 7.30pm Mondays–Saturdays, 2.30pm matinees on Thursdays and Saturdays

How long: Two hours with a 15 minute interval

How much: £25-£45 (+ £1 restoration levy)

Tickets from: 0870 060 6632 or www.theambassadors.com/trafalgarstudios

My free tickets never arrived. Gosh. How can that be after all my publicity work? Maybe they got lost in the post.

Turns out the Fates wanted me to see it anyway.

You see, I was supposed to be going out to see a movie last night with my sister. But last week, she emails me. There’s been a terrible mix-up with a theatre booking and she’s ended up with matinee tickets which she can’t use. But the box office has been able to sort it out and instead get her tickets for the night we were supposed to be going to the movie – do I mind seeing Fat Pig?

Oh.

Fat Pig starring Robert Webb (Peep Show), Kris Marshall (My Family), Ella Smith (Cape Wrath/Meadowlands) and Joanna Page (Gavin & Stacey)?

Well, it would be a shame for them to go to waste…


Plot

Life is good for Tom. He’s successful at work, has some great mates and a fantastic new girlfriend. Ok, so she’s a little on the large side, but he loves her and that’s what counts, isn’t it?

When Tom’s office buddies and sometime ex-girlfriend find out that he is seeing a ‘plus-size’, it’s not long before the odd whispers turn to something more sinister, leading Tom to question if size does matter after all.

Is it any good?

It depends on what you’re looking for. Are you looking for a biting, coruscating polemic that points its finger at you and shows you JUST HOW BAD YOU ARE? YES YOU.

Or are you looking for something a bit more accessible?

Neil LaBute is going for both, but with the cast he’s assembled for the play’s British premiere, it’s far more the latter than I suspect the American version was.

The thing is, the cast are all too nice, maybe even miscast, for Fat Pig to really strike for the jugular.

The play is mostly a romance between Tom (Webb) and Helen (Smith). We see how they meet, how they flirt together and how they end up going out together. We see their relationship grow over time on dates and when they’re at home together.

That’s all very well handled. There’s some fantastic dialogue, and Webb and Smith have great chemistry. Helen and Tom both seem pretty appealing at this point, although what Tom sees in someone who while witty, is a bit dull, puts herself down all the time, loves old war movies and rents all the films based on Alistair Maclean books that she can find, we’ll just have to leave to the imagination.

But as we already know, things don’t go smoothly when the rest of the office, including pal Carter (Marshall) and sometime girlfriend (Page), find out.

What league would that be?

So here’s the tricky part. First, we have to believe that Ella Smith isn’t really very attractive. LaBute’s proposition is that size – and purely size – and society’s attitude to it is enough to cause an otherwise happy relationship to hit the rocks. Because society hates a fat person.

Trouble is, Ella Smith’s actually pretty beautiful. Sure, there’d be some odd comments, people being people, but even the most lookist of lookists would pause before a full-out attack. And given the speed at which Tom, as played by Webb, hits on her and falls for her, it seems odd that he’d be so willing to contemplate throwing that aside, except through some fatal character flaw rather than because societal pressure is so great. Had Webb played Tom more predatory, more detached – just trying something out for a change – then the second act might be more believable.

More problematically, Tom is supposed to be a young, good looking guy – something you can say of Jeremy Piven from the US original, but even the biggest Robert Webb fan wouldn’t describe him as conventionally good looking. So when Carter talks of how people need to “stick with their own kind” (ie the good looking and thin), you do wonder exactly what ‘kind’ that might be since Webb and Smith are in more or less the same league, with Smith having perhaps the edge.

Webb also plays Tom as a particularly craven individual. While Tom confesses to wanting to be the kind of guy who sticks to his guns but always fails, you don’t feel that Tom is much of an Everyman. He’s just so weak that you don’t really think of him as representing normal society and men, just himself.

Then there’s Marshall’s character. As written, he’s a jock. He’s also the voice of society – he’s the guy who explains what’s supposed to be in our hearts (judge for yourself what’s in yours). He’s the one who takes the liberal viewpoint that looks don’t matter, etc, and says, “Very nice in theory, but are you sure about that in practice. In your heart of hearts?”

But Marshall is too affable. Sure, he does the alpha male things expected of Carter, but not in the way you’d expect of a jock douchebag. He’s playful rather than malicious. Rather than being the oppressive voice of convention, he’s just a guy trying to be honest, trying to help his friend out.

Bunny boiler?

Then there’s Page. As written, Jeannie could be a bitch with a potty mouth who’s a bit of a bunny boiler*. But Page plays her like a regular woman who’s been wronged by a bit of a tosser. He dumps her, then asks her out again; he dumps her, then asks her out again; ad nauseum and seemingly ad infinitum. When she tries to get honest answers out of him, he ducks them. And when using some scary smarts she pieces together what’s going on, he dumps her publicly in possibly the most humiliating way possible – it’s not me, it’s you.

Rather than being an ice queen, unmoved by anything except the insult of his new girlfriend’s looks, Page’s heart almost visibly breaks on stage as her undeniably rubbish boyfriend, who she’s been willing to change for in numerous ways, explains that he won’t commit to her because he’s been cheating on her, she’s too annoying and he’s only been going out with her to avoid the nagging he’ll get after a break-up.

After that, the retaliation of a rude email and a bit of a slagging off of Tom and his new girlfriend in the second act seem totally justified.

So as a polemic railing against society’s viciousness, it doesn’t quite have the razor sharpness or the universality necessary. But if you think of it as a rom-com, in which a slightly cowardly guy has to decide which woman to go out with while his friends and co-workers pass politically incorrect comment, it’s better, although most of the rom and the com is in the first act. All the cast have great comic timing, especially Webb and Marshall, and you can’t help but laugh at both the performances and the play itself.

Webb, who’s in every scene, is pretty much a variant of his more famous characters –  think Jeremy in Peep Show but with far more charm. Much of his performance’s comedy comes from recognisably Webbian mannerisms, yet he shows some real acting talent as well, including some spontaneous crying. It also seems that he has it written into his contract now that every computer he uses in a drama must be a Mac.

Marshall is chameleonic, with only one scene making you think of him in My Family or anything else. He’s the only one who seems to be going for Californian mannerisms** in his performance, opting for a looseness and coolness that’s very surfer dude at times. And you’ve got to admire the method acting of a man who turns up for the cast bow at the end dressed in beachware, even though he’s the only one who wasn’t in the beach scene.

Smith is enchanting and gives an outstanding performance, but plays Helen so free of malice, so lacking in fire or willingness to hang on to what she’s got – mostly because that’s how the part’s written – that it almost feels like she’s pushing Tom through the door because she lacks the drive to fight for the relationship.

As for Page, well obviously I’m now completely in love with her after having seen her live*** (as will you be, too, if you go), so I’m not sure I can give a wholly unbiased opinion. But she certainly gives as good a performance as Smith and if all you’ve ever seen her in is Gavin & Stacey, you’ll be surprised by her range – to put it simply, there’s not a trace of Stace. She manages to go through jealousy, rage, heartbreak, evil Sherlock Holmes and a whole heap of other non-Stacey-ish emotions in just a few short scenes, all while making you laugh.

Accents

We disagreed on the little matter of accents. Since the play’s set in the US, everyone’s putting on US accents. We were both of the opinion that no one’s was absolutely fantastic, so if that’s the kind of thing that irritates you, you might have a problem with this production.

Robert Webb’s is almost tissue thin: at times, it sounds as if he’s not even bothering. She argues though that his sounds more relaxed and the least ‘actorly’ as a result. We both agree that Smith’s was the most consistent, after an initial shaky start, and that Marshall’s was ‘okay’.

We differ a bit on Page’s. My sister thought it was the worst since every now and then, more so in the second half, you can hear a touch of the Swansea creep in. But for the vast majority of the time, I think her accent was the purest and most bona fide – certainly the least like a British person putting on a US accent of all those on display.

LaBute’s direction of his own play is competent. The stark set works well and you have to admire a man who uses White Stripes for the soundtrack during scene changes. You can’t help but feel he needed to egg the cast on to be a bit edgier, though.

Pretty good, as all-star cast productions go, and I’d certainly go again, given the chance of free tickets (hint, hint). A bit of a change for Trafalgar Studios, too, which is normally into the more experimental. It lacks the bite necessary to be more than a troubled romance that makes you think a little about your own values and attitudes, but if you go in with those expectations in mind, it’ll be a fun – and occasionally uncomfortable – evening.

Rating: 3/5

UPDATE: My free tickets arrived! Just too late for me to use them. Curses!

* Of course, “bunny boiler” comes from Fatal Attraction, another drama in which crap happens to a man because he does a woman wrong. The solution, of course, is not to be a dick.

** I’m suspecting Californian, since there’s the little matter of office beach parties, and if they were going for New York or Florida, they missed by almost a continent.

*** I would have said “in the flesh”, but given there’s a beach scene where she’s only wearing a bikini, that might have given the wrong impression.

The audience

Surprisingly good and respectful audience – even the wonderful Paul Morley who was down in the front row (UPDATE: compiling his Newsnight Review it turns out). God, I was expecting him to kick off, big time (maybe not). The only exceptions were two women who legged it at the end and stood in front of the cast, just as they were taking their second bow. The cast were good enough to wave them goodbye though.

The theatre

The Trafalgar Studios are pretty nice. They’re just off Trafalgar Square (obviously), which makes them easy to get to – for me at least. They’ve just been renovated, too, and £1 from each ticket goes towards the renovation fund. Two bars, one upstairs, one downstairs and it doesn’t feel like you’re treading in 150 years of fag ash when you’re in them. Loos aren’t bad and have one of those Dyson airblade things, but leg it when it’s the interval or else you’ll never beat the queues – at least, if you’re a lady.

Studio 1 is quite big, with room enough for a good couple of hundred people. Row A will put you within about five feet of the cast. Not much legroom in row D where we were, but the seats were reasonably comfy.

The Trafalgar SudiosThe Trafalgar StudiosThe Trafalgar Studios

The programme


£3. Pretty standard as they come, with a brief article by Neil LaBute at the front about his own weight issues and a rundown of the cast and crew.

Other reviews

There’s a big round-up of reviews at Music OMH and What’s On Stage, but if you really haven’t achieved your anger quotient for today, I suggest giving Quentin Letts’ Daily Mail review a glance – you’ll be there in no time.

There’s a lovely look at the show at the equally lovely Theatre 247. It features interviews with the cast, director and some of the audience from the first night (including Alison Steadman and Ruth Jones). And yes, there is a picture of Joanna Page in a bikini if that’s what you’re looking for.

Cast

Tom (Robert Webb)

Helen (Ella Smith)

Carter (Kris Marshall)

Jeannie (Joanna Page)

Writer: Neil LaBute

Director: Neil LaBute

Designer: Christopher Oram

  • andrea

    That’s an interesting review, I was wondering what that play was like. It sounds like there was no real reason not to change the location and thus avoid any accent problems.
    Also, while I am not quite the size of Ella Smith, I’m not at all the size of Joanna Page either and if my boyfriend is getting grief about it, or has ever even thought about it, he’s doing a remarkable job of hiding that from me. I don’t think people care all that much, despite what we constantly hear in the media.

  • Well thank you kindly!
    I had a think about a location change to the UK and I couldn’t think of a good place where an office might have regular beach parties – it’s slightly integral to the play that when the office meet Helen for the first time (more or less), no one’s wearing many clothes and that’s really what shames Tom.
    Brighton’s a bit pebbly and swamped with people the very second there’s a bit of sunshine, Margate’s a bit rubbish now, Swansea might be nice but a bit windy at times – nowhere really says office beach parties like California.
    I did date someone who was a bit overweight once and got a severe amount of gip for it. But it turned out she was a Daily Mail reader and “genuinely believed that women are inferior” so that really wasn’t going to work out anyway. Otherwise, I would have ignored it and carried on dating her. It’s not that difficult. Maybe in the US, though – I don’t know…

  • Partner’s previous girlfriends were all ‘Rubenesque’ so I’m a bit of a change for him on that level. Definitely agree Ella is too gorgeous for some of the concepts here to work about fat girls. Would love to get to see this play but not sure i’ll get the chance. Really glad you enjoyed it! (And Page, obviously). Your sis does come up trumps with the goodies doesn’t she, whether its gossip or trips!

  • Interestingly, Robert Webb replies to Thomas Sutcliffe in The Independent wondering why they didn’t relocate the play to Britain. Apparently, LaBute did ask the cast if there was a good reason why he shouldn’t, and they all replied that the play was written in American English and had the meter, etc, of American English. So it needed to be American.

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