Old Fitz Theatre, February 18
The lights go up on a morbidly obese man. Charlie is 600-pounds and counting – not just his weight but the number of days he has left.
“Do you find me disgusting?” he asks visitors several times during the course of Samuel D Hunter’s moving play The Whale, set in Idaho on the outskirts of Mormon country.
It’s certainly confronting initially to see someone so overweight, beached on a sofa gorging on fried chicken or masturbating to gay porn. But beneath the bulk, Charlie (Keith Agius) has an agile mind and a huge heart.
He teaches essay writing to English Literature students online (with the camera turned off). He has a close, loving friendship with Liz (Meredith Penman), a nurse who visits regularly and cajoles him into leading a healthier lifestyle while bringing him the junk food he now craves.
He is also desperate to re-connect with his estranged daughter Ellie (Chloe Bayliss), a troubled teenager whose need for love has turned into spitefulness and who he basically bribes to be there. Constantly prickly and sometimes downright vicious, Ellie lashes out at Charlie, who with the patience of a saint is prepared to take whatever she has to give in order to get to know her.
Into the mix comes a young Mormon, Elder Thomas (Alex Beauman) who wants to interest Charlie in the Church of Latter Day Saints. Charlie’s former lover Alan, it transpires, was also a Mormon. Latter in the play, Charlie’s ex-wife Mary (Hannah Waterman), a single mother doing it pretty tough, also appears.
Gradually, we discover why Charlie is eating himself to death, and what has brought all the other characters to this point.
Lacing The Whale with references to Moby Dick and the Biblical tale of Jonah and the whale, Hunter has written a humane, tender and compassionate play, which takes in themes including homophobia, religion, small-mindedness, self-loathing, grief and family.
Designer Charlie Davis has used the Old Fitz space cleverly, suggesting a hallway and other room beyond the rather squalid sitting room where the play takes place. There are also rows of seating on one side of the stage to create a more intimate performance space. Davis’s costuming is also spot-on as is Alexander Berlage’s lighting.
Shane Anthony directs a tight, beautifully performed production. Agius, who wears a fat suit, conveys Charlie’s physical decay brilliantly: the laboured wheezing breath, the heart palpitations and the struggle to move. But he also warms the cockles of your heart with his endearing portrayal of a man who is patient, kind, loving, understanding and desperate to atone for previous wrongs: a true gentle giant.
The other actors all offer utterly believable, touching portrayals of people struggling with their own problems and hurts. The relationships that develop between them take you by surprise and the ending of the play is deeply affecting. Recommended.
The Whale plays at the Old Fitz until March 4. Bookings: www.oldfitztheatre.com