The Whale – Theatre Review

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Samuel D. Hunter’s ‘The Whale’ first debuted off-Broadway in 2012 and became exposed to a larger audience with the release of the 2022 Darren Aronofsky film adaption starring Brendan Fraser as Charlie. The Whale is back with Australian audiences but through theatre.

The Alex Theatre is the home of The Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s 2024 production, directed by Jennifer Sarah Dean. This new production is the Victorian Premiere of The Whale and may be the first time for many to witness Samuel D. Hunter’s work as a stage production.

Set in the outskirts of Mormon Country in Idaho, ‘The Whale’ follows the life of the morbidly obese man Charlie (Adam Lyon). Hiding away in his apartment and teaching English writing courses online, he keeps his webcam off, ashamed of his appearance. The only person that Charlie confides in or has seen him in years is his only friend, Liz (Melanie Gleeson). Liz acts as his enabler by bringing him food. Despite bringing him food and enabling his addiction, she is persistent with pressuring Charlie to go to hospital, while he insists he doesn’t have the funds.

Liz’s love and protection towards Charlie comes to a head when Elder Thomas (Sebastian Li), a missionary from the local Mormon Church decides it’s God’s will for him to save Charlie. As Charlie’s health deteriorates further, he gets more desperate to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter Ellie (Skye Fellman), even going so far as to offer his entire lifesavings in exchange for spending time with him.

When Charlie does reunite with Ellie, her anger at the world and harsh remarks towards Charlie, a character that’s been constantly apologising for everything up until now, is heartbreaking. It’s no doubt that Hunter’s script is a heavy one, a behemoth of a task for the cast and crew, but Jennifer Sarah Dean’s direction has a beautiful control of the material.

The Whale is a play that’s success is almost completely reliant on the chemistry between the actors. The actors that work greatest together are Lyon and Gleeson. Liz and Charlie’s story is explored more as the play goes on, showing a long and tragic history between the two and both actors genuinely portray this dynamic. Lyon is gut wrenching with his portrayal of Charlie, a broken man that can still bring joy into the world through people like Liz and Elder Thomas. The only issue I found with Lyon’s performance comes from Hunter’s original material, simple things like the wording of Charlie’s self-deprecation.

The standout performance for me came from Gleeson. Liz is undeniably flawed but Hunter’s writing for her doesn’t come across as a caricature. She acts as a proxy for the audience at times, defending Charlie from cruelty and trying to improve his life. Gleeson excels in every aspect of the portrayal. This production is a corridor stage and sometimes Gleeson had full control of the scene. I genuinely found it so hard to take my eyes off her.

Two characters that still leave me with mixed feeling are Ellie and Elder Thomas and I must credit the actors as the only reason I don’t hate the characters outright. Ellie is often described as cruel and angry; Hunter has used Ellie as a prime example of the trope of ‘angry teen’ but she’s also wickedly funny.

Ellie’s character gives Fellman a great mix of material to play with, and she aces all of it. Ellie is viper tongued when she is cruel but Fellman manages to cushion this by how great her comedic timing is. Then there’s Elder Thomas, I thought I hated this character at the shows end, but Sebastian Li’s portray was so sweet and funny, just making me wish his character had made a different choice.

A performer that doesn’t get enough time is Tanya Schneider as Charlie’s ex-wife Mary. This is a character that we’ve only heard negative things about up until now but Schneider makes her human, even if the character’s choices have been cruel and far from wise.

The Whale has had its critics, mostly directed at Charlie and his characterisation. I admittedly haven’t seen Aronofsky’s film, so I can’t compare Dean’s directional choices in regard to Charlie, but there has clearly been a choice to steer towards empathy, rather than pity or disgust.

I was aware that The Whale was going to be a tough watch, but Dean’s direction balances out the emotional minefield excellently, ending scenes that are emotionally difficult, and then opening the next softer so it doesn’t become emotionally unbearable. The intermission was also a welcome breather because this is an emotionally exhausting play. This truly feels like a collaboration with passionate people wanting to make a beautiful production, and I really feel like they have. My only fault lies with Hunter’s original material.

The Whale cast are wonderful, with some of the greatest chemistry I’ve seen on stage. Jennifer Sarah Dean masterfully has crafted a production that will leave you breathless.

Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s production of The Whale is currently playing at Alex Theatre in St Kilda until the 14th of July.
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Photography by Ben Andrews.

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