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Review Round-up: Fat Pig Brings Home the Bacon?

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American Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig received its UK premiere at the West End’s Trafalgar Studios 1 last night (27 May 2008, previews from 16 May). Directed by the playwright, it’s performed by four familiar TV faces: Robert Webb (of Mitchell and Webb, making his West End debut), Kris Marshall, Joanna Page and Ella Smith (See News, 4 Apr 2008).

Fat Pig premiered at the Off-Broadway MCC Theatre in 2005. Examining notions of conventional beauty, it tells the story of Tom (Webb), who faces the indignation of his friends when he introduces them to his new, super-sized girlfriend Helen (Smith). Can Tom come to terms with his own preconceptions of the importance of stereotypical good looks in the face of such disdain?

Writer/director Neil LaBute was last represented in the West End by Some Girls, which starred FriendsDavid Schwimmer in 2005, and a revival of The Shape of Things with Hollywood’s Alicia Witt in 2004. His plays The Mercy Seat, The Distance from Here, Bash and The Shape of Things have all had premiere runs at London’s Almeida Theatre, while This Is How It Goes was seen at the Donmar Warehouse in 2005.

Despite structural flaws, with several overnight critics commenting on Fat Pig’s “dramatic flabbiness”, most acknowledged Neil Labute as a “brilliant” contemporary playwright, whose trademark black humour and "shock tactics" are in abundant evidence here. The comedic skills of the “gifted” cast were widely applauded - “straying” American accents notwithstanding - with comparative newcomer Ella Smith managing to “steal the show” for critics with her “beautiful” yet “frighteningly vulnerable” depiction of the titular ‘fat pig’ Helen.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Like all good playwrights, LaBute operates on two levels. The fatness of his sweet-tempered heroine Helen is both a literal expression of her bountiful humanity and a metaphorical signal of the difference in all people, not just handicapped or culturally alien – but temperamentally unique, too. For it’s clear in the tortured, wittily inflected performance of Peep Show star Robert Webb as Tom that diving into the enveloping ‘niceness’ of Ella Smith’s beautiful, gargantuan Helen is as much a spiritual tactic as a physical one … Tom’s colleague Carter, a supercilious smartass who takes satanic glee in the discomfort of others … is played to ghastly perfection by Kris Marshall … LaBute, who directs his own seven-scene play on a stark, revolving design by Christopher Oram, has come up with another brilliant contemporary comedy and incidentally revealed a wonderful, richly voiced new star in 24-year-old Ella Smith, who really does prove that fat can be beautiful as well as a problem.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “LaBute treats the Tom-Helen affair with superb emotional accuracy. Their first encounter is beautifully done: Helen swathing herself in self-deprecating irony (‘big people are jolly, remember?’) and Tom, in a don't-mention-the-war manner, desperately trying to avoid all size jokes. All their scenes ring tenderly true, with LaBute showing how two people, in spite of social pressures, can be drawn together by shared tastes, sexual appetites, and matching conversational rhythms … Ella Smith is exceptional as Helen: sassy, sexy, big-hearted and frighteningly vulnerable. Robert Webb's Tom, wanting to commit but afraid of the consequences, has exactly the right timorous edginess. Joanna Page endows the discarded Jeannie with a fine vindictive acerbity, and Kris Marshall, in spite of a wavering accent, successfully suggests that the repellent Carter is one of those boy-men who never grows up … But it would an even better play if it told us why America, founded on the notion of independence, has turned into such a tragically conformist republic.”
    • Alice Jones in the Independent – “It's a pleasant surprise to report that, although the playwright has endowed his play with the luridly offensive title Fat Pig, he has written and directed something akin to a rom-com. Albeit a rom-com that comes with a typically bleak LaButian twist of the knife … Unusually for the master of quips, much of the humour comes not from his jokes – though funny, I was hoping for something darker and more robust – but from the excellently directed physical gags of the gifted comedians Webb and Marshall who make a great comic pairing. Page looks uncomfortable and sounds a little too Stacey-like to be believable as brittle bitch Jeannie, but when she finally lets fly at Tom, it's with impressive gusto … In a much superior second half, when LaBute strips his characters bare, and has Helen heart-breakingly offer to be ‘stapled’ and a craven, yet highly recognisable Tom reveals his soul, the audience can clearly hear a human heart beating under any amount of dramatic flabbiness.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Inside Fat Pig there is a thin, exploitative black comedy struggling to get out … Its brilliant author, playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute, specialises in shock tactics and bad taste in good, liberal causes — though not really here in his own elegant production … The play’s mission … is to suggest how hard it is for an ordinary man to do the unconventional thing and fall for someone whose fatness outrages a world of slimline youngsters. And as a comedy of character and situation, Fat Pig induces waves of laughter … Fat Pig, as with LaBute’s nasty film In the Company Of Men, shows women being mocked and brought down — respectively for fatness and deafness. I find the procedure repellent and my own laughter shameful.”
    • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “The play evokes cruelties so everyday that many wouldn't see them as cruel at all … LaBute leaves you feeling there's an awful truth in Carter's overall warning: ‘People aren't comfortable with difference: fags, retards, cripples, fat people, old folk even.’ But the play has problems, principally that Tom and Helen's romance is so sudden you can't believe that it has the depth the plot needs. And one of the four characters, Joanna Page as the trim beauty Tom rejects, is too obviously there to represent female ‘normality’ and spout fattist bitchery … Page could be harder, tougher, but all else in LaBute's production is excellent: Webb radiating an earnest, flummoxed decency; Marshall lolling, grinning, playing the stirrer and joker, but suddenly serious when he recalls his embarrassingly obese mum; and Smith, at ease and not quite at ease in her own skin. Could LaBute have evoked the ‘stress’ that originally bloated her? Maybe, but it's a touching portrait all the same.”
    • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail – “Marshall can certainly hold his own. With his wild eyes and his languid legs, he makes a convincing sexist rake. Webb is also okay, if a little bland … Page, however, is cruelly miscast. Her American accent keeps straying to the Welsh borders. The real problem is that she is so completely unlike any American man-eater I've encountered … It is all too easy to understand Rob wanting to dump her, particularly when his fat new girlfriend Helen (Ella Smith) is so warm and sparky. Smith may be the least well-known of this cast, but she quite rightly steals the show, such as it is. She's a wobbling beauty … No doubt Fat Pig will do steady business, even if it doesn't deserve to. Audiences are attracted by TV names. That is one type of gormless lookism that really is true. This lame show's greedy producers, who should never have cast poor little Joanna in this part, will prove their point one way or another.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

      ** Our Whatsonstage.com Outing to FAT PIG on 1 July 2008 – including an EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with the cast – is now SOLD OUT! - click here to join the waiting list! **

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