The cast of Fat Pig, Neil LaBute’s hilarious new comedy of sex, lies and obesity, comprises four of the hottest (and one of the cheerfully fattest) names in British television and film comedy: Kris Marshall from My Family, Sold, Richard Curtis’ Love Actually and those BT adverts; Joanna Page from Love Actually and of course the BAFTA award-garlanded Gavin and Stacey; Robert Webb from Peep Show, also honoured in the recent BAFTAs and now in its fifth series on Channel 4; and super-sized Ella Smith from Cape Wrath and also from Sold. But how “fattist” is “fattest”? The play’s title draws attention to the elephant in the room: the in-fat-uation of a regular guy (Webb’s Tom) with a much larger lady (Smith’s Helen).
LaBute, who is also the director, and magnificently gargantuan himself these days, wanders off from the rehearsal space very slowly for a light lunch while we huddle on sofas and chairs in the makeshift office where the play is mostly set, and lovers Tom and Helen get down and dirty with each other.
These are four very bright, funny cookies, make no mistake – Smith, at 24 years old, is the baby, the others are in their early thirties. I try to play the theatrical task-master by reminding Webb of his line in the first episode of the new series of Peep Show where he and David Mitchell (as Mark, an uptight loan manager) are planning a trip to the theatre. Mitchell’s worried about it, but Webb reassures him that “Theatre’s moved on... they use proper actors now, Americans... and people off the telly”.
Robert Webb: First, you have to remember that’s my character, Jeremy, the wastrel musician, speaking. Secondly, that Peep Show script was fixed long before I was cast in this play. You have to believe me! And thirdly, I do have theatre credentials. I’ve trodden the boards. David and I have been performing live for years, and it’s not stand-up, it’s character-based comedy. We started at Cambridge Footlights and have appeared for years at Edinburgh and the BAC.
Kris Marshall: No, we’re not at all bored with the boards, are we love? Mind you, I do agree with the premise of that Peep Show episode that when theatre’s terrible, it’s really turgid. Which is why I like Fat Pig: it’s contemporary, rather louche and conversational, with a dark underbelly.
RW: And in theatre, an actor has much more control over what he or she is doing. On film or TV, timing is your best guess. Hopefully, if you’ve done lots of it, your best guess gets better. But that two-way conversation with an audience in the theatre is the real deal. You soon hear if they’re laughing or not.
Robert Webb, Joanna Page, Ella Smith & Kris Marshall took a break from rehearsals
last month to talk to Michael Coveney
But does doing a West End play just tick another box in a TV star’s career plan?
Joanna Page: I never analyse that much to be truthful. I’m just happy doing what I enjoy. I've always been in work but I've never been famous. I am known now as Stacey from television, but when I came out of college I went straight to the National, in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with Fiona Shaw, and The Mysteries when they came back.
KM: The way the business is now, you don’t know where you’re going to be in six months, so it’s pointless trying to force the issue. There is no planning. And you never know. Things I’ve done I thought were crap have done really well. And jobs I thought were brilliant died the death.
Ella Smith: I’m just a jobbing actress, so I’ll see what comes up. I was a chorister in Salisbury Cathedral and trained in opera, but I went to drama school and got the bite and have worked ever since.
Do the Hairspray people know about you, Ella? That show, too, is partly about being happy with the size you are.
ES: I auditioned so many times, and when it came to the last audition I didn’t go. I just had a feeling about what I could and couldn’t do. Yes, I’m super-sized – I haven’t always been – but I’m always playing raunchy characters, getting naked or shagged over a desk, as in Sold. So as an actress I’m used for my body as much as the next girl.
Image seems to matter so much these days, especially for actors.
ES: Well look at me! I never usually get to play a romantic lead, let alone snog Rob Webb.
JP: Yes and I’m mostly cast as the giggly blonde, so this play is great because my character’s way beyond that image. It’s the most grown-up I've ever been – a hard American bitch in a business suit. Interestingly, after working on the play, I like her more and feel really sorry for her. But you can’t help experiencing rejection if you don’t fit a particular mould. I've been to casting sessions and been told that my boobs are too small, that I'm either too fat or too thin, not pretty enough, not curvy enough, or just too ugly.
RW: But fatness is not really the issue in the play. The thing about Fat Pig is it’s less about Tom falling in love with a large girl and how he won’t admit to his work colleagues that they are an item; it’s more about the problem of being a shop-window liberal. We like to think that if we fell in love with someone who was larger, older, disabled, or the same sex, that we could walk down the street with them hand in hand and not give a monkey’s. Sometimes it’s a much bigger battle than that.
There’s a speech in the play about not being comfortable with difference. As so often with LaBute, it’s not designed to appease the politically correct, is it?
KM: That’s what I like about it. My character in the play, Tom’s work mate, is not so much a complete tosser who acts like a cynical arse over his friend’s girl’s body image, but in a funny way, he’s also the voice of reason for Tom who just can’t admit that he’s dating an over-large girl. So it asks how we compartmentalise people and how far society will allow you to go in terms of difference, without people taking the piss.
RW: And how much you’re going to allow any of that to affect you personally. It’s brilliant. There are lots of great one-liners.
ES: Ironically, although my over-size character might be seen as the problem, she’s actually comfortable with herself – a secure and happy person.
Is LaBute protective of his own work as a director? He’s often branded a misogynist and a control freak.
JP: He’s the exact opposite! He’s not remotely precious about his work and he gives actors so much space. It’s a real compliment for a director to trust you like that.
KM: The closest I’ve come to it is when I worked with Richard Eyre on The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard and the movie Iris. Actors are not always in charge of their own confidence, so you always think you want more guidance. But Neil, like Richard, lets you get on with it and then starts turning the screw, and tweaking, as you get to the crunch time.
RW: Also, he’s a very funny guy and he sets the whole tone. He’s urbane, dry and very laid back. He’s nearly cuddly.
Outside, the sun beats down. LaBute rolls in from a lunch which may not have been so light after all. He looks happy, and a little bit larger.
LABUTE’S BEST BITS
American playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute has been on our radar for ten years, ever since his dark and funny first movie, In the Company of Men (1997), showed two suits in a nameless city seducing and hurting a vulnerable deaf woman. The discrepancies between base instincts and moral weakness may shrivel in this atmosphere of cruel social and ethical neutrality, but LaBute is obsessed by the nature of sin. He was a practising Mormon until, after his three devastating monologues of murder, rape and queer-baiting in Bash (2000), he was “dis-fellowshipped” by his church.
In the Noughties, we’ve seen Rachel Weisz (and Alicia Witt later in the West End) as a deadly, exploitative artist in The Shape of Things; Sinead Cusack and John Hannah struggling with their deceptive relationship in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in The Mercy Seat; David Schwimmer as a writer in Some Girl(s) meeting former squeezes (Catherine Tate, Saffron Burrows, Lesley Manville and Sara Powell) to achieve “closure” before marrying a student nurse; Ben Chaplin, Idris Elba and Megan Dodds exploring love and racism in the American Midwest in This Is How It Goes; and a young ensemble as a group of animalistic teens in The Distance from Here, with its disturbing scene involving a wailing infant. Earlier this year, the Bush presented the double-bill of Land of the Dead and Helter Skelter, the first short piece hinging on an abortion on the anniversary of 9/11, the second on a revelation that a pregnant woman’s husband has been having an affair with her own sister.
In November, back at the Almeida Theatre - where Bash , The Shape of Things, The Distance from Here and The Mercy Seat all had their first London productions – LaBute’s three-hander In a Dark Dark House will receive its European premiere, directed by artistic director Michael Attenborough, who also helmed The Mercy Seat. In the new piece, first seen at Off-Broadway’s MCC Theatre in May 2007, a forced reunion between brothers in a dark family home brings to light barely-hidden animosities. LaBute gets under the skin of these personal crises with scalpel-like precision and wit, proving his worth as a great stylist as well as a formidably fascinating playwright.
Fat Pig opened on 27 May 2008 (previews from 16 May) at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios 1, where it continues its limited season until 6 September. In a Dark Dark House is at the Almeida Theatre from 27 November 2008 from 17 January 2009 (previews from 20 November). A version of this article appears in the June issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!
** Our Whatsonstage.com Outing to FAT PIG on 1 July 2008 - including a FREE drink & EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with the cast – has sold out!! - click here to join the waiting list in case of last-minute cancellations! **