Friday, May 30, 2008

Fat Pig: The Body Politic

On the heels of directing a pair of Hollywood thrillers of dubious quality (The Wicker Man, Lakeview Terrace), prolific playwright-cum-filmmaker Neil Labute returns to stage direction with the West End debut of Fat Pig, a dark comedy that continues his exploration of the dark recesses of the human psyche.

This production features a quartet of British actors, all of whom have found success on popular British television programming: Kris Marshall (My Family), Joanna Page (Gavin & Stacey), Ella Smith (Strictly Confidential) and Robert Webb (Peep Show). Here, Webb plays Tom, a straight-laced and straight-bodied office worker who falls in love with an overweight librarian named Helen (Smith). When news of his budding relationship gets out to the office, his co-workers Carter (Marshall) and Jeannie (Page) become fixated on Helen’s body-size. Tom tries to ignore their scurrilous commentary and continues his courtship of Helen and seems to be truly falling in love with her.

But as this is a Labute play, there is of course a sting in the tail, and here it’s Tom’s increasing embarrassment about being seen with Helen in public that eventually forms an impasse. This quality prevents the play from taking on a fairy tale quality and becoming an unabashed call for acceptance and promotion of positive body image – the kind of paean found in Hairspray. The play isn’t malicious in its presentation of people of plus-sized waist lines but it’s not interested in sugar-coated happy endings either. Tom isn’t presented as a saintly modern day prophet who rejects societal conventions – as say Linc in Hairpsray is presented – but rather as a fallible servant to the status quo who ultimately realizes his own yearning to be accepted by society’s understandings of normalcy will make the undoing of his relationship.

Labute never goes for the easy answers, instead favoring harsh realities – occasionally so harsh they seem more painful than reality. Labute relishes the opportunity to look deep into the human psyche and extract truths that are generally rendered unspeakable. The lesson usually learned by a character in a Labute play is: You’re not as good a person as you think you are.

The production he’s staged at the Trafalgar Studios stage is a largely successful one that benefits from a strong cast – Page’s shrill attempt at an American accent being the only weak link in the ensemble (her anachronistic approach sounds like Katherine Hepburn by way of Minnie Mouse). Webb, whose accent is the most convincing, is given the juiciest role and is well equipped to deliver the uncanny blend of empathy and revulsion Tom seems designed to evoke.

A revolving stage provides opportunity to swiftly switch between sets, one half designated for Tom’s office (replete with desk, chair, leather sofa and iMac) and a variety of external locations (achieved with limited set design but good lighting and imaginative performance) that include an Asian restaurant, a bustling cafĂ© and a beachside picnic. In between set changes, music by The White Stripes blares over the speakers matches the sonic energy of the verbal back-and-forths while projected scene titles instill a sense of structure that downplays the temporal ambiguity of Tom and Helen’s relationship. The White Stripes music (tracks from White Blood Cells and their self-titled album) is well suited to the material, the harshness of Jack White’s electric guitar strums and coarse vocals punctuate the sequences with their ferocity and recall the savagery of Elvis Costello’s drumbeats in The Shape of Things.

Labute’s only major misstep is breaking up the play’s approximate 1 hour 40 minute running time with a 15-minute interval. The play’s climax is a powerful admission by Tom but its incisiveness is ameliorated by the relatively short second act that makes the ending feel abrupt rather than the product of a carefully stirred slow boil. A few years ago I saw Labute’s Some Girls at the Gielgud Theatre presented sans interval and the ending’s effectivity was considerably greatened from the non-stop accumulation of events. The same approach would have benefitted Fat Pig – but then theatres still need to sell drinks and ice cream I suppose.