Review: Big, VAULT Festival

From the moment I walk into the theatre, with ‘All About That Bass’ by Meghan Trainor playing, it’s clear what direction the show will be taking; what I mean by this is that, like ‘All About That Bass’, an ode to body positivity that manages to undermine it’s message by putting down ‘skinny bitches’ and placing too much importance on what boys like (which is apparently ‘a little more booty’ rather than confidence). It’s a comedy about Fat Girl (yes, this is the only name we are given) who is dating a Pizza. After her overbearing mother signs her up for a reality show called The Only Way Is Pretty, Fat Girl is paired with the shallow and vindictive Hot Boy who humiliates her repeatedly on TV to advertise his brand of dieting pills. 

  Unfortunately Big predicts it’s own downfall; in the first scene, Fat Girl tells her mother that she “can’t have the same conversation again and again”. Every other scene reiterates the same point;  Fat Girl is body-shamed, Fat Girl feels bad about it, Fat Girl then realises she shouldn’t care. The audience are told again and again that fatphobia is bad and that conventionally attractive ‘hot’ people are just cruel and shallow. There are hints at potential in this story, such as Fat Girl realising that taking part in the show means she is contributing to fatphobia, or the cultural differences between fatphobia in the UK compared to India, where Fat Girl’s mother lives, but none of it is explored in depth. Instead, just when it feels like Fat Girl is about to be truly vulnerable, writer Urvashi Bohra suddenly swerves off into another physical comedy sequence with Pizza.

  The design of Big tries to poke fun at itself through intentionally shoddy costumes (such as a t-shirt simply saying ‘imagine a celery costume’), but because it uses gags like this so often, it grows stale quickly. Scene changes are shown through a PowerPoint slide change telling us each location, every time getting slightly more tongue-in-cheek to the point where the audience are chided for not “paying attention.” The attempt at humouring low-budget costumes and lack of thoughtful design feels forced, like the show itself is just as insecure as it’s protagonist. It’s trying to be self-aware, but comes across as desperate rather than charming. 

    There are odd moments which are genuine but they get lost in the convoluted plot and the stereotypical characters. While this is an issue with the writing, the direction and the acting can’t compensate for it. There are several scenes which play an out-of-sync skype call, and the physical comedy relies too much on the absurdity of her lover being a Pizza to carry the jokes. The transitions from face-to-face conversations, to phone calls, to monologues with voiceovers makes it difficult to keep, and the lack of clear staging makes it hard to keep track of which conversations are taking place face-to-face and which aren’t.

  Big has a great message at heart, but is performed on insecure footing; there is something genuine and vulnerable at the core of this show, but just when we get close to it, it goes in a completely different direction, as if it’s afraid to take any risks, so distracts us with a re-enactment of the balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet in which Romeo is a slice of Pizza. Although it has moments of sincerity, Big often feels as though it’s trying so hard to be wacky, that what exactly it is saying about fatphobia gets lost in translation. 

Big is played the VAULT Festival until 8 March. For more information, see the VAULT Festival website.