From the opening chords of the White Stripes’ songs that punctuate the scene changes of Neil LaBute’s supersized comedy, it is clear this is a hip, trendy production with youth on its mind. Using actors famed for roles in television comedies aimed at 20/30-somethings it tells a story particularly pertinent to that demographic, but with wider implications for society as a whole.
Tom, played by Peep Show’s Robert Webb, has a chance meeting with large librarian Helen (Ella Smith) over lunch. He has a small salad; she has three slices of pizza and a dessert. It’s a nervous affair, and her size is the elephant in the room, but away from their eating habits they have a lot in common and embark on a relationship. When Tom’s workmates find out, their prejudices, and those of society, start to make things difficult.
It is wrong to laugh at those of greater proportions, we all know that, yet LaBute’s script, on occasions, invites us to do just this. Helen’s self-referential mocking and Tom’s workmate Carter’s blunt and brash, tell-it-how-it-is insults leave the audience crying with laughter before they realise quite what they are laughing at. But behind the fat jokes are serious issues inspired partly by LaBute’s own experiences.
Both Webb and Kris Marshall, as Carter, add to LaBute’s sharp dialogue with subtle physical comedy of their own, proving their credentials as the leading lights in the next generation of British comic actors. Webb’s Tom, like so many of us, is frustrated with his own imperfection, unable to ignore the pressures of society and tearing himself up inside for not having the strength to be his own person. Marshall’s Carter is the over-grown child of the office with the attention span of a disaffected woodlouse, an obsession with sex and more prejudices than Heinz has varieties.
Smith’s Helen is the classically self-denigrating victim, getting in first with put-downs before anyone else has a chance and desperate to find the love that she previously didn’t think possible. Joanna Page, star of the award-winning Gavin And Stacey, playing Tom’s scorned co-worker Jeannie, provides the contrast. Silhouetted in a hip-hugging pencil skirt, she is angry and uptight where Ella is open and warm-hearted. What they both share are insecurities about themselves, they just cope with them in different manners.
As irritating and childish as Carter is, he often speaks the straight-forward truth. “People are not comfortable with difference,” he says, when offering his own brand of relationship advice; wise words that are central to both the comedy and the tragedy of the piece.