The Theatreguide.London Review
Soho Theatre Autumn 2014
The fattest teenager in the world – we're talking 900 pounds, not-out-of-bed-in-three-years fat here – has agreed to be in a reality TV show. In return for his letting the world gawk at him, the producers will pay for a diet plan, counselling and ultimately gastric bypass surgery.
As the taping progresses over a year or more, we get to know everyone involved. Like Pinocchio, Artie just wants to be a real boy, and his rather simple fantasies of superherodom are those of any nerdy teen.
His fiercely loving and protective mother, on the other hand, is gradually exposed as an enabler, dependent on his being dependent on her, and not as committed to his losing weight as he.
The careers counsellor brought in to guide Artie toward the world of work has to overcome her repugnance at the sight of him and struggle to keep a straight face when assuring him he might someday get an office job. And the TV producer is only interested in making good television, and willing to let things go (or push them) in any direction she can sensationalise.
Artie develops a crush on the counsellor, even though she's twice his age, because she's the first person to ever act as if his dream of normalcy could come true, and the all-business professional (who might in a less enlightened age have been called a repressed spinster) softens in the warmth of his love.
Melissa Bubnic's play has a nice balance of humour, pathos and satire, but what really makes it work is an essential honesty.
All four characters (with the possible exception of the TV producer) are honourable and mean well, but all are flawed in ways that make simple judgements impossible. And because there are no heroes or villains but just imperfect people doing their best, we believe and care.
Meanwhile, Bubnic's balanced presentation means that the story could go in any number of directions, and we never feel that she's manipulating it to make an easy point. You won't be able to guess how the play will end, but from the earliest moments you'll be confident that it will be realistic and acceptable.
(As it turns out, we get something vaguely resembling a happy ending, but not a fantasy one, and it is quite satisfying.)
Though at the centre of the action James Dryden actually has a fairly simple acting job as Artie – to let us see the scared but hopeful lad and hold that sympathy throughout.
As the producer, Rhoda Ofori-Attah must repeatedly go from silky smoothness to hard-edged nastiness in an instant, and pulls it off without making the woman totally inhuman.
The real acting honours go to Robin Weaver as the mother and Alison O'Donnell as the counsellor, as they take both characters through the most complex journeys of self-exposure and self-discovery (Both also double and triple in brief cameos as other talking heads in the TV show).
Director Justin Audibert and designer Lily Arnold are obviously limited by budget constraints in this production from Canterbury's Marlowe Theatre, and some of the effects called for in the script have to be dropped or fudged – most notably in presenting Artie's girth, which never looks much more than the actor's own beefy-but-healthy size.
But this is ultimately not a play about bodies but about the people inside the bodies, and script, production and performances all serve those people with a warmth and respect that make for an enriching and entertaining evening.
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