Trafalgar Studio 1, London SW1
Opened 27 May, 2008

Helen is a librarian, smart, witty and extremely generously built; when she encounters corporate hot-shot Tom at a lunch bar, she allows herself to consider that perhaps… But enough about Helen, because despite the title, this play isn’t about her. It’s about Tom, about his awkwardness at falling for a tubby woman and the peer pressure put on him. It is increasingly typical of Neil LaBute to offer a protagonist who hurts another and feels really, really bad about it, yet not particularly to care about showing us the victim’s point of view as well as the perpetrator’s. (His breakthrough The Shape Of Things is atypical in that its protagonist is himself the victim.) In the final image of the play, Tom has just succumbed to hassle from co-workers and dumped Helen; she, who has been distinctly the more articulate until the final few minutes, sits dumbstruck whilst he cries copiously.
Just as Helen is less a person than a means of generating dramatic anxiety in Tom, so his two colleagues fulfil similar contextual functions. Carter (played by Kris Marshall very much in the vein of his character in the sitcom My Family but with a collar, tie and sadistic streak) is the voice of misogynistic prejudice, and Jeannie (Joanna Page, with the most annoying voice since Madeline Kahn in What’s Up Doc, though perhaps not entirely intentionally) the jealous ex-that-never-really-was. There’s an inadvertently ironic moment when she accuses Tom of choosing Helen solely to wound her, Jeannie, and Robert Webb gapes in mute incredulity that she could make this all about her; as both Tom and the author know, it’s actually all about him. Both Carter and Jeannie also get passages of sincere, implausibly articulate counsel to bestow on Tom; where characterisation is concerned, contradiction does not equal complexity.
Webb is, as one might expect from the co-star of Channel 4’s Peep Show, adept at alternating embarrassment with misjudgement. Ella Smith’s Helen has a fluency of self-deprecation that I, as a fatso of long and wide standing, can only envy. The production, directed by the author, moves along confidently, with even the between-scenes music thematically coherent: it is a selection by the White Stripes, so given to writing mordantly about relationships and to aggressive defensiveness about Jack and Meg White’s relationship and private identities. As for LaBute, perhaps it is time for him to write a different play.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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