Georgia Winstone-Cooper reviews the new one-man show from Robbie Bowman and Living Pictures, a deeply personal exploration of the psychology, science, and politics of the male body image, in Say When.
Funny and heartfelt, Say When dives into the psychological isolation of body image and, ultimately, self-acceptance, as Bobby (Robert Bowman) explores male relationships with food, diets, and weight. Issues rarely associated with men are forcefully grasped and then delicately prodded as Bowman briefly explores the far reaches of the American food industry and the onslaught of information and fad diets offered up to cure obesity. Written and performed by Bowman (and directed by his wife Elen Bowman), Say When is a deeply personal venture into the private thoughts of a man struggling to balance his love of food with the outside world’s hatred of fatness.
The single set becomes the imagined space of a high school wrestling match, a timid Weight Watchers meeting, and the infamous Mastermind chair as the external disembodied voices of a wife, John Humphrys, the television, and even an electronic assistant cry out, often unsolicited, information and questions concerning his weight. The set, a sparse living area with only a small table, reclining chair, fridge, and exercise bike, echoes Bobby’s distress at simply existing rather than living; constraining the production to one space, and often only one spotlight, allows for nothing to distract from the expanse of Bobby’s thought processes. The lighting varies greatly throughout the production, a single spotlight highlighting moments of focus and clarity is quickly changed to a series of flashing coloured lights as he attempts to cycle as fast as he can to release himself from the restraints of his body.
And Bobby’s thoughts take us far and wide; back to the time of the European colonisation of America, of cowboys, and of his own childhood growing up in Washington state, as he explores how food and eating became such a political and emotional issue; one moment thinking of the quiet days of watching his grandfather fish, seeming at one with nature and longing for a time of peace and tranquillity in a world untouched by human greed. Bowman transitions seamlessly between laughter and tears and from anger and derision at those who profit from people’s problems with self-worth, to deep sadness and disappointment at his own feelings of failure. Factual information is starkly contrasted with emotional responses which excellently highlight the inner turmoil of attempting to please the outside world’s perception of what is acceptable. Moments which brought raucous laughter at the beginning, elicit nervous and uncomfortable chuckles towards the end as attitudes towards food and weight which are deemed acceptable in society are proven to have a long-lasting personal effect.
Small moments of audience interaction draw the crowd in and act as a reminder that this deeply personal experience is not so isolated as it often seems to be, and the idea of a Fat Club is presented and argued over as an alternative to Weight Watchers. Bobby longs for a space in which men can simply exist and be comfortable with their bodies, without the external pressures to conform to an image and existence others claim he needs, but he does not truly want. The production follows no explicit plot but is rather a riotous expression of the varied emotions tied to weight; when counting calories becomes counting points and the euphoria of discovering he has lost weight becomes deep sadness and disappointment when he gains half a pound. Then begins the fasting, the planning, and the controlling and disordered eating behaviours which develop when the goal is losing pounds on a scale, rather than an overall pursuance of health and vitality. Indeed, it is implied throughout that the primary aim of the diet and weight loss industry is to turn a profit, rather than to positively impact any person’s life; Bobby’s own father spent $20,000 on surgery to finally reach his target weight, only to soon after waste away from stage 4 cancer.
As was commented on in the after show Q&A session, this is yet another production about a middle aged white man, but it is an emotional account and the beginning of a conversation around male body image and eating disorders which has rarely been touched upon, let alone exhausted. In one small moment, Bobby remembers how he and his teammates on the high school wrestling squad unwittingly engaged in disordered eating with the intention of remaining in a specific weight category, and he recalls the sadness when one wrestler is forced to end his bulimic habits and gains weight. The primary theme of the stories Bobby tells is perseverance; he had the mindset and the will to succeed in wrestling, in Weight Watchers, and the myriad of programmes and fad diets he attempted. Yet this perseverance ultimately led to Bowman conducting his own research and discovering the ways he himself could create a better life for his family and a better world in general; a plant-based diet is his own answer to his own problems, but as Bowman states when he pre-empts criticism for the use of a plastic bottle, ‘One thing at a time’. Say When explores the ever-changing and greatly expensive advice and programmes offered for weight-loss, yet questions their intentions and asks: What if some people just want to stay fat? In a world facing extremes of political upheaval, racism, and climate change; is being fat really all that bad?
Say When is on at Chapter in Cardiff and then on tour to limited venues around Wales. Find out more here.
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Georgia Winstone-Cooper is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.