Fat Pig, directed by and starring Phosile Mashinkila, boasts an ensemble cast who respond brilliantly to each other and leave few dull moments, and is expertly-staged and enjoyable. However, playwright Neil LaBute’s attempts at subversiveness flatter to deceive – the social critique is a lot shallower than it looks.
The production undeniably achieves an electric immediacy, aided by Burton Taylor’s intimate size – intentionally, there is no barrier between the stage floor and the seats, so that the audience sits close enough that incautious leg-stretching may well trip actors. Suitably, the actors adapt their performance, dispensing with the customary stage voice for a more subtle cinematic naturalism, turning the audience into voyeurs who are, somehow, complicit in their gossip. The play’s drama is staked on the relationship between Tom (Jason Imlach), a handsome, successful young professional, and Helen (Phosile Mashinkila), a gregarious librarian whose weight becomes a sticking-point: we need to believe that the remarks of Tom’s friends, Carter and Jeannie (played by Brian Chandrabose and Martha Reed), who insult Helen for her weight, have the potential to hurt a romance worth rooting for. Hence the sizzling chemistry between Imlach and Mashinkila becomes crucial. Tom’s lack of self-confidence and need for genuine love, together with Helen’s humorous, likeable personality, meant that we really care whether their relationship succeeded or failed.
This play hinges on the delayed revelation of characters’ true motivations. For example, Tom tantalizes us for most of the play with whether he is embarrassed about Helen because of his inability to sort out his romantic entanglements with Jeannie (who he’s sort-of-maybe-dated in the past), or whether Helen’s appearance is truly an issue with him. Imlach has to avoid tipping the audience too soon either way, saving the revelation of Tom’s true motivations to the end. He succeeds in this task, which seems easy – it has nothing to do with big emotional set-pieces – but is in fact the hardest thing for an actor to pull off. Reed contributes to this ambiguity by convincing us that an entanglement with Jeannie really does have the power to make Tom afraid of being open with his dating life. Helen’s investment in the relationship is also well-dramatized: her self-consciousness and ultimate dependence on external validation is not overemphasized by Mashinkila but rather runs like a hidden current, with only clues to suggest it, such as the believable way Mashinkila deals with the stage business of handling food. These all contribute to the theatrical coup at the climax where everyone has their moment to surprise us with their true selves.
The authenticity of acting is only undermined in a few moments, which all lie in passages where the characters insult Helen due to her weight. The actors seem to find the lines so repugnant that they subconsciously avoid saying them for real. Chandrabose sometimes gives up the façade just long enough to make us realize he may be a lot nicer than his character Carter, a self-avowed “asshole”; Carter’s character-defining monologue is covered with a listless remorse, and Chandrabose makes no definite choice between genuine penitence and unashamed self-justification. Similarly, Jeannie’s vehemence towards Helen erupts all at once rather than building gradually, as if Reed wanted to get the bigoted lines out of the way as soon as possible so she does not have to truly feel them. These moments, consequently, are the only ones where the sense of truth breaks down – a shame, considering the complete believability of the rest of the acting. And who can blame the actors? For the characters, with the exception of Helen, are all capable of being extremely unlikeable.
Which brings us to the question of the text. Fat Pig is very consciously attempting to be a critique of society, and the production unambiguously treats it as an “issue play” with its choice of interval music, all of which are songs about fatness and body image. However, as the plot summary in promotion and programme material shows, it still centres on Tom’s dilemma of whether he is comfortable dating a “plus-sized (very)” woman and “stand up for love” (certainly not a dilemma that defines his life or which occupies him daily) over the dilemma of actually being a fat person in our society, where society’s judgements are daily facts. This in itself is not a problem; however, the play encourages us to empathise with him, to alleviate his full guilt, to give him the benefit of the doubt. Carter’s monologue, apart from doubling down on his own bigotry, also serves to reassure Tom that he is by contrast a good, conscientious, generous person for merely considering to date a fat girl. Even if done with a mocking glance, we are still invited to consider Tom’s inner struggle as, in some sense, heroic. He may be weak, pathetic, as he confesses at the end, but… at least he tried?
For all its attempts at subversiveness, the play is deeply safe, and no production, no matter how brilliant, can stage their way around its essential premises. How are Carter and Jeannie to play their parts? Either they are horrid people for being judgemental, in which case the audience sits smugly and decides “at least we’re more enlightened”, or the characters’ bigotries will have to be made sympathetic, in which case the play loses its social criticism. Obviously, any production with a moral compass will choose the former interpretation, and the audience simply affirms to themselves what they already believe in. Neil LaBute’s cast is so claustrophobic in number that the judgement of “society-at-large” (a nebulous entity if there ever was one) is represented by merely two people, leading to the overwhelming question: if Tom truly fears his friends’ judgements of Helen, why doesn’t he find new friends? Is the play really saying that “society” is perfectly horrible? Or just that two people – living in a non-descript American city, shorn from almost all concrete, material contexts – are perfectly horrible?
Textual ideologies aside, the production as a whole is a success: slickly staged, brilliantly acted, and full of humour and drama. The audience will not fail to be entertained and to forget time passing by as they’re watching. However, once they walk away, it’s unlikely to have changed their ideas about weight and body image, and there really isn’t that much to consider and to chew over the next morning.
‘Fat Pig’ runs at the Burton Taylor studio until Saturday 25th October, tickets £6/£5; for more information and to book tickets please visit their website.