Trafalgar Studios 1
"People are not comfortable with difference" as caveman Carter points out in one of his rare sympathetic moments during this exceptionally clever second play in Neil LaBute's Beauty trilogy.
Following the incredibly popular The Shape of Things, which centred on masculine self-image under intense scrutiny, Fat Pig focuses on the difficulties that today's society presents to anybody who falls for someone outside socially acceptable parameters, let alone the object of their attentions.
Neil LaBute has built a reputation on his ability to address taboo subjects from unconventional perspectives, often starting from Greek mythological roots.
Compared to murder or incest, obesity seems pretty tame but the man who directed the movies Nurse Betty and In the Company of Men has created a severely affecting two hour long romantic comedy that could not be further from the typical Hollywood equivalent.
Tom, well played by Mitchell and Webb and Peep Show star Robert Webb, and his best friend Carter are LaBute staples, affluent preppy types who take their manhood seriously. Indeed, the cruel wisecracking character played by Kris Marshall, who is now probably better known for the BT adverts than his long spell in My Family, has a one track mind focusing entirely on women as sex objects but telling some great, tasteless jokes as part of the package.
So far so ordinary, until in a crowded cafeteria Tom meets Helen, the Fat Pig of the title, played with great feeling by the really excellent Ella Smith.
The writer compares this charming, witty but very overweight young woman with the men's work colleague Jeannie, a paragon played by yet another TV star Joanna Page, the female lead in cult show Gavin and Stacey. She is a slim, gorgeous blonde who may have no sense of humour but certainly in Carter's eyes, that is not her purpose in life. Indeed, she and Tom could have been a couple made in heaven since he too has a humour bypass whenever Helen cracks her regular, self-deprecating jokes.
The comedy builds in line with the relationship. Under the cover of portraying reality, a stream of both intended and unintended laughs are derived at the expense of the overweight. However, these are always tempered by the impeccable behaviour of the truly lovely and very dignified Helen.
Ella Smith ensures that her character develops from initial disbelief that a nice looking man would fall for her to the stage where Helen has fallen head over heels in love, seemingly reciprocated by Tom and at last, ........ but that would spoil the ending, which is a great credit to Neil LaBute, who has always known how to finish a play at the right moment.
LaBute directs Fat Pig himself and does extremely well, showing an eye for detail and ensuring that his big-name British cast do the piece justice. The pace is maintained thanks to Christopher Oram's simple revolving set, which complements the constantly perceptive writing.
The writer also gives all four actors some real opportunities to shine. Ella Smith and Robert Webb proved to be consistently impressive, while Kris Marshall, who almost didn't make it in time following a car accident, gets ample opportunity to show off his comic talents. Joanna Page sometimes struggles to cover her Welsh accent with an American one but has one tirade that led to spontaneous applause, such was its power.
The only potential problem with this play is that for those who identify with Helen, the prejudices shown by Carter, Jeannie and to a lesser extent Tom might prove embarrassing, but then that is the whole point of this clever dissection of a prejudice that dare not speak its name.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher