Body-positive art has a habit of being bland – there are only so many ways of saying, Hugh Grant style, “I like you, very much, just as you are,” (as Billy Joel’s hit proves). This new musical seems determined to break out of “beautiful, in every single way,” Christina Aguilera-style blandness by being baffling, in every possible way. The writers Tim Anfilogoff and Alan Whittaker started out in poetry and prog metal respectively.
Their first musical clashes the scattered-brained exuberance of a 1970s concept album with celebrity satire, social commentary, and loads and loads of plot, bound together with lashings of melted cheese.
Having insane storylines isn’t necessarily a problem in musical theatre – think Billy’s heavenly police summons in Carousel, or the way that Lloyd Webber’s Cats spend the musical trying to prove that they’re ready to die, Heaven’s Gate style. But with A Body to Die(t) there’s not even a pair of furry ears and a tail for us to cling on to.
The plot follows Greta on a muddled picaresque journey from abusive stepfather, to modelling career, to celebrity marriage, to dramatic downfall. Poor Greta is assailed from all sides – by politicans, her former boyfriend, by fat activists. She’s played by three actresses that represent her at different weights; Nicola Kill comes off the best, helped by the semi-naturalistic dialogue at the play’s start. She loses weight to become a model, and then as the punchline of a ridiculous plot twist, gains weight as her later incarnation Grace Bishop, who is shoved under a duvet singing about feeling like a beached whale – hardly empowering.
Faye the body-positive, diet-pill dispensing feminist witch who sleeps with people to get her way is typical of the play’s morally grey universe. The play bombards us with a huge range of activist ideas, without managing to come off pro-anything at all, least of all protest; characters who step outside the normal in any way are mercilessly mocked. The cast have a range of body shapes, but the message of the whole show wildly contradicts its central body positive-anthem “I can’t be tamed.” The overweight characters aren’t just tamed, they’re bullied, fed diet pills and blown sky high.
As well as Greta’s fall from grace, we’re treated to constant, wild digressions; a surprise suicide bomber, a drugs bust, and the academic conference designed to yield as many synonyms for female genitalia as possible. The characters are left suffocating and spluttering under the all-encompassing blanket of plot — no one comes well from lines that are either devoted entirely to exposition, or designed to display feelings entirely at odds with their personality to date. The songs are catchy and fun, but barely have time to further or even relate to the plot, cut down to a bare verse or two. The big political debate-rap showpiece is a dishonorable exception; you’d need six listens and a prog-nerd’s eye to the liner notes to get to the bottom of it.
Inside this mess is a good play, struggling to get out, but its been thoroughly sedated with not just a few cupcakes, but a whole morass of mad confections. Some of them are great fun; the Lardy-da-das (surrealist posh fat activists) hint at the authors’ potential for levity and an enchanted Venus of Willendorf sub-plot is mesmerisingly odd.
For an hour-long musical, though its just far, far too chaotic and while it’s never bland, it’s also very hard to love just the way it is.