Right from the opening scene and very first lines in the play My Fat Friend, Vicky (Michelle Botha), an overweight ‘fag hag’ (Botha’s description) and London bookshop owner is ridiculed and body shamed by her much older GBF (gay best friend) and flatmate, Henry (Tobie Cronje). Vicky appears bored with her life, and despite numerous attempts at dieting, continues to gulp down chocolate and other delicious foods prepared by their third roomie, the younger James (Jeremy Richard). Henry’s attacks on Vicky about her figure are vicious, and while she quips back, creating a humorous repartee, it’s rather astonishing how she suffers the comments with good humour and no apparent dent to her self-esteem. She also appears oblivious to the shy James’ infatuation with her.
But, when a good-looking customer strays into her lounge, which is attached to the shop, things look up. Tom (Charlie Bouguenon) is looking for unusual and old travel books to accompany him to Iran, where he’ll spend the next couple of months prospecting for oil. He’s immediately taken with Vicky and asks her out on the spot. At first, she thinks he’s taking the piss. He persists and she agrees to dinner that night. This provides new fodder for Henry and causes the jealous James a lot of pain.
After a wonderful date, Vicky and Tom decide to correspond until he returns. Henry decides that this would be a fantastic opportunity for Vicky to have one more go at slimming down, as a sexy surprise for the next time she sees Tom. She commits and with the help of her two roomies, makes one last go of it in order to capture Tom’s heart. This all seems rather frivolous and shallow, and yet the viciousness and sheer number of jokes Henry makes at Vicky’s expense cannot be ignored, and at the heart of the play is a message about identity and acceptance.
Charles Laurence’s London and Broadway hit comedy was penned in the 1960s, which helps to explain Henry’s no holds barred cannon shots at Vicky and her weight. Currently, comediennes like Mindy Kaling and Amy Schumer have launched scathing critiques against fat shaming or body shaming and this is where My Fat Friend poses some problems. It’s as un-PC as it comes, and there is no question that this is ‘funny’, that is, easy to laugh at. It’s easy to relish in Henry’s mean attacks because they are full of clever puns and idioms. Let’s not beat around the bush though. This is the audience indulging in pure, unadulterated schadenfreude. But if Vicky takes it in her stride, and hits back, then well, the audience should accept that and buy in too shouldn’t they? It’s a question I wrestled with and I asked both Cronje and Botha this question.
Botha referred to accepting yourself, and your body, as long as you’re “health”. Listen to an excerpt of my interview with her:
I asked Cronje a similar question. He described Henry as a brutal role to play:
The cast in My Fat Friend are on point, and there is a particularly great dynamic between Cronje and Botha and the way they deliver their acid and stabbing dialogue but warmer body language off one another, a great visual descriptor of their friendship. Cronje is South Africa’s quintessential funny man on stage, though he’s done it just as well on television and in film. His performance is caustic as it comes, and he’s the epitome of the older, quick on the trigger ‘queen’. Both Richard (a newcomer to watch) and Bouguenon complement the two main characters in their supporting roles.
The play is set in London but both director Danie Odendaal has made them South African expats so there are (thank god) no fake accents for the two leads, but Richard does a commendable Scottish drawl.
The first half has a nice fast pace but it lags a bit in the second. It’s up to the audience to decide whether, despite the brutality, the exchanges between Vicky and Henry are funny and fun enough to rise above the challenging subject matter.
My Fat Friend is on at Monte Casino’s Pieter Toerien Theatre from 07 September to 02 October 2016 before moving to Cape Town’s Theatre on the Bay for a run from 08 November to 26 November.
Time: Wednesday to Friday at 20h00, Saturday at 16h00 and 20h00, Sunday at 15h00
Tickets: From R 100 – R 180