This review was originally written for Cherwell
There are structures within society that, for better or worse, make it difficult for love between superficially mismatching individuals to survive. It is these structures that Neil Labute examines in Fat Pig, his award-winning play about Tom (Jason Imlach), a stereotypically handsome professional, who falls for Helen (Phosile Mashinkila), an overweight librarian, much to the derision of his friends and colleagues.
Sadly, for all its pretensions to thought-provoking social commentary, the version of Fat Pig currently being performed in the confined space of the Playhouse’s Burton Taylor Studio, is a stuttering, pedestrian exploration of our obsession with appearance that does very little in the way of actual exploring.
There is a distinct lack of theatricality about the piece. An awkward meeting in a cafeteria, a quiet night in with a movie, a casual office discussion – there is nothing remotely dramatic here. The audience intrudes, almost voyeuristically, into the private moments of a burgeoning relationship, and is surprised, one could say disappointed, by the absence of anything tangibly interesting.
Director Phosile Mashinkila, who also plays Helen, has imbued the play with a cinematic realism that, although initially refreshing, quickly descends into tedium, exacerbating the play’s inherent theatrical deficiency. Initially, as Tom and Helen meet, sharing an inauspicious conversation over lunch, this authenticity is extremely effective. Imlach and Mashinkile mumble banal pleasantries to each other, the audience shifts uncomfortably during the conversation’s awkward silences, and an air of expectation builds. There is a growing anticipation of imminent fireworks and scandalous revelations.
Regrettably, none are forthcoming. The play meanders lazily through repetitive sequences with little narrative progress. The closest it comes to profundity is when Carter (Brian Chandrabose), Tom’s ‘asshole’ co-worker, confesses his enduring adolescent fear of nonconformity yet even here the piece’s relentless realism detracts substantially from his confession’s emotional content.
The play’s premise is undoubtedly thought-provoking. There is a deeply ingrained stigmatising culture towards relationships that bridge social divides in western society; ‘It’s one of the many laws of nature. ‘Run with your own kind’, asserts Carter. Fat Pig obliquely addresses this issue. Why do we care so much about how we appear to other people? Can love really stand up against a tide of judgemental disparagement? A finger is pointed at the audience, asking them to examine their own prejudices.
Yet in truth, these themes are merely hinted at and never satisfactorily addressed, lost in a mire of dull realism and insubstantial plot. Paradoxically, the drama is too naturalistic, the characters too accurate a reflection of reality for the audience to care about them. A curtain is certainly lifted, and a well-composed picture of ‘real life’ and ‘real relationships’ is certainly revealed underneath. There is one fundamental problem, however: real life is not that interesting.