The elephant in theroom

By Arja Salafranca Time of article published Apr 23, 2012

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This is an intensely uncomfortable play to watch, and in some way take part in, because you’re also intensely involved in it. It’s impossible not to be – the issues at the heart of Fat Pig reach deep into most of us in our image-obsessed world, whatever form that identification takes.

Written by American playwright Neil LaBute, the play has been brought to the SA stage and directed by Tamryn Speirs. The story grips from the beginning when plus-sized Helen (Chanelle de Jager) is standing in a cafe/bar eating her carbo-loaded lunch. The place is crowded and there’s nowhere else for Tom (Colin Moss) to eat.

She clears a space for him at the table, and invites him to share her space, literally and metaphorically.

The two hit it off, despite the obvious obstruction of Helen’s bulk – which she refers to in self-deprecating jokes and which he alludes to almost unconsciously at the beginning of their exchange. Size will always be an issue in this relationship – no matter how each try to ignore the elephant in the room, so to speak.

Tom’s a thirty-something successful hotshot with an office with a view, rising fast up the corporate ladder. Helen’s a librarian who’s just been for a job interview. The match is unlikely – but they swop numbers and, yes, he does call, even though Helen jokingly acknowledges that maybe they won’t go out and they will just be phone friends.

Much of the action takes place in Tom’s swanky office – a place where we meet his office buddy Carter (Clayton Boyd), equally up-and-coming, equally hip, with the world at his feet. Both young and good-looking with muscular physiques, they could have anyone, as Carter says to him at one point. And yet, Tom has chosen Helen – but it’s a choice that embarrasses him. He’s falling for her, loves the movies she watches, the jokes she tells, she’s warm, attractive and funny – but she’s simply too fat, on the wrong side of pleasantly plump.

When Carter encounters Tom and Helen on a date in an Asian restaurant, Tom passes her off as a business colleague from London, too embarrassed to be introducing this large, bubbly woman as the woman he’s interested in. The bells start tolling from then on.

Added to the mix is Jeannie (Lee-Anne Summers), the accountant, blonde and slim and good-looking. She and Tom had a brief relationship, and her acid, bitchy comments remind Tom, at times, why he’s no longer with her, or with “that type of girl”.

And yet she and Carter are a thorn in Tom’s side, both serving to provoke his own unease at being in a relationship with a woman who is not conventional looking. They are foils to his own prejudice and serve as a mirror of general society’s attitudes to the obese in Western society.

The jokes Carter makes in regard to her size are tasteless and cringeworthy, and yet we’ve heard them before, or variants of. And slim, sexy Jeannie cannot understand how Tom could pass her over for a woman who is so outside of society’s norms.

She’s missing the point here: looks, rather than compatibility, kindness, resonance, hell, even love, dictate whether a relationship can go forward for her and Carter.

“My mother was fat,” says Carter and describes being 15 and walking in front of her at the mall, so that friends and others wouldn’t guess that the large woman was his mother.

It’s simple, he tells Tom, all she had to do was look in the mirror, stop stuffing endless food down her gullet. But it isn’t as simple as that – and this play also makes us challenge our assumptions about the grossly overweight.

Certainly, lack of exercise and too much food lead to being overweight and obesity – the equation is pretty clear. But there areof course emotional reasons that lead to overeating. It appears obvious that no one becomes that large simply through sheer “laziness”.

There are so many reasons for this – but that is not part of the fabric of this play.

Instead, LaBute is focusing on society’s attitudes towards the overweight through the prism of these four characters.

De Jager simply shines as the effervescent Helen, imbuing her with a warmth and loveliness that endear us to her.

Of the four cast members she alone retains her Afrikaans accent – which perhaps also adds to the naturalness of her performance. Moss is an attractive match, playing the confused yet lovelorn American male, torn between his deep feelings for her and the disapproving eyes of the world on him.

And it’s an uncomfortable watch, bringing to the fore our own assumptions and prejudices. We watch Helen, we empathise and fall for her ourselves, yet isn’t there also just a hint of disapproval as, when she sits on the beach, having given Tom his single hot dog, she eats not one but four hot dogs?

We want to yell, too, just as Carter has; we want to say, throw away the other food, stick to one, for goodness’ sake.

The prejudice is deep within us all – the fat among us are at times reviled, scorned, bullied, made to feel less than.

We recognise that prejudice, and yet feel ourselves giving into it as well, despite all inner protestations at doing so. And that is part of the unease. This is a brilliant portrayal of these issues, but I must also add that it is also liberally peppered with wit and humour, which moves the play along entertainingly.

And, if you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone much larger than the norm, there will be extra room for resonance and a close recognition of the situations portrayed in Fat Pig.

l At the Old Mutual Sandton Theatre on the Square until May 5

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