South Africa, Maverick Life, Media

Fat wears a bit thin

By Lesley Stones 17 April 2012

Do we judge people by their personalities or by their appearances? This is the question that award-winning US playwright and film-maker Neil LaBute tries to address in his 2004 play. By LESLEY STONES.

Could you fall in love with a fatty? Maybe you already have, in which case the play Fat Pig could annoy you intensely.

If you’re a fatty yourself, you may sigh in recognition when it inevitably concludes that the majority of people stick to their own type and break socially acceptable norms at their peril.

Neil LaBute explores the issue, drawing on the single question of whether a good-looking thin guy, Tom (Colin Moss), can get it on with the lively, likeable but large Helen (Chanelle de Jager).

That one issue is spun out for almost two hours as Tom finds himself falling for Helen, but never in public, only in private.

He’s embarrassed to be seen with her, and takes flak from his well-groomed but vicious-tongued colleague Carter and uber-bitch Jeannie, a blonde Barbie with whom Tom is supposedly having a fling.

Yet at the end I couldn’t see why this American creation has become an award-winning show. For a comedy it’s not particularly funny, and it’s all rather overplayed.

Moss is very comfortable playing the uncomfortable Tom, who puts his foot in it repeatedly with Helen as they skirt around the elephant in the room. He wants to be with her, but can’t stand up to the taunts and snide remarks from others that dent his own self-esteem.

De Jager carries her role well, with the script perhaps exposing the lie that fat people tell themselves. Helen insists she is okay with her body image, yet constantly needles Tom about his feelings towards her, as she is ever fearful of rejection.

I don’t think I’ve seen any production where a fat character is truly at ease with themselves, and how can they be, the play implies, when the acceptable standard is slim.

LaBute intended his play to tackle issues of body image and how people conform to avoid challenging social norms. For me the sadder message is that people will deprive themselves of what they really want in order to remain socially acceptable, which is a sadder reflection on humanity than the more obvious message that fat is still considered gross, even in this age of lardy-arses.

One flaw is the lack of witty repartee in what should be an issue with plenty of meaty humour. But a greater weakness is that LaBute has created a cast of caricatures rather than characters. The action flows as speedily as possible, so it feels like the script rather than the actors or direction is at fault.

Maybe the lines would have sounded funnier or the issues been more provocatively interesting given a different delivery, but I doubt it.

Jeannie is a truly dreadful role and, though Lee-Anne Summers gives her all, she is unconvincing. Surely no woman would be so demeaningly dense, spiteful and undignified when what is clearly a non-starter of a relationship fizzles out?

Jeannie is the stereotypical office bitch, as imagined by a man. “I really like you,” Tom tells her at one stage, which is the least plausible of all the lines. Why would he, when there’s absolutely nothing to like?

LaBute clearly makes Helen the far nicer women, to emphasise how we judge people’s value based on appearances, not personality.

Clayton Boyd as Carter gets some of the best lines, but again he’s a stereotype of a potential playboy mixed with lingering teenager in his juvenile attitudes.

The stage set is crowded but effective, serving as three separate areas for the interaction. But it’s a simple issue really. Fat is bad, thin is in. And you either have the guts to go against that or you don’t.

LaBute gives us several angles of the same issue, but by the second act the fat is wearing thin. DM

Fat Pig runs at Sandton’s Old Mutual Theatre until 5 May 2012.


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