The Whale

Old Fitz Theatre, February 18

KeithMeredithThe Whale

Keith Agius and Meredith Penman. Photo: Rupert Reid

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.

AlexKeithThe Whale

Alex Beauman and Keith Agius. Photo: Rupert Reid

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

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Howie the Rookie

Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins. Photo: Kathy Luu

Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins. Photo: Kathy Luu

Irish writer Mark O’Rowe spins a gripping, blood-and-brawl yarn in the two intersecting 40-minute monologues that make up his 1999 play Howie the Rookie, which feels slightly fantastical and yet profoundly, horribly human.

Brought to brilliant life by Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins, the production directed by Toby Schmitz packs a knockout punch.

Set in a tough, working-class suburb of Dublin in the late 1990s, the Howie Lee (Henry) begins the tale. He is, he tells us, out to bash up the Rookie Lee (same surname, but no relation) for infecting a mate’s mattress, where he sometimes sleeps, with scabies. So when his mum asks him to babysit his five-year old brother the Mouse Lee, he tells her in no uncertain terms where to get off.

When the Rookie (Hawkins) takes up the story, he reveals that he is in considerably more trouble than a bashing at the hands of the Howie and his mates. He has inadvertently killed the Siamese fighting fish belonging to the Ladyboy, a brutal gangster, and has to raise a substantial amount of cash if he wants to keep his kneecaps in tact, as a result of which an unlikely alliance forms between the Howie and the Rookie.

O’ Rowe’s use of language is exhilarating. Writing in a vibrant, robust, vital style that sings with a kind of blistering, slangy poetry (words like “slappercopper” for police woman, for example), he creates such vivid, visceral images you feel you are there.

The story is peopled with eccentric characters. The Howie is a bit of a dag and useless when it comes to chatting up girls, unlike the good-looking Rookie.

Then there’s the Avalanche, a mountainous vision in white ski pants who lusts after the Howie (who has bedded her once) and now keeps appearing at inopportune times like when he’s taking a leak.

The Howie’s friends include Flan Dingle, who has dreadful BO, Ginger Boy with blazing red hair and the Avalanche’s towering brother (“six feet tall, built like a human white puddin’), who may not be quite the full quid. As for the Ladyboy, he is rumored to have three rows of teeth like a shark.

A dark, ugly comedy full of booze, piss, blood, biff and violence, it’s very funny – until it suddenly gets all too real.

Schmitz – who is currently based in South Africa where he is playing a featured role in the pirate TV series Black Sails – returned to Australia briefly to direct Howie the Rookie.

Lisa Mimmocchi has designed him the perfect, minimal set: a black box space with nothing in it except two chairs for the storytellers, a tiny up-ended chair in the corner (the meaning of which is explained in the course of the tale) and a pile of beer bottle tops. The tracksuits she chooses for the two storytellers are also spot-on, while the shaved pattern in Hawkins’ hair is an inspired touch.

Schmitz, who performed at the Old Fitz several times early in his career, uses the space exceptionally well. His decision to have both men there throughout the two monologues is a canny one, for starters. They sit, sipping on a beer, while the other talks, occasionally reacting and making eye contact, but mostly just present. But it somehow makes it feel more real to see the other key person in the story.

Schmitz also uses the bottle tops, just twice, to send a jolt through the audience. Alexander Berlage’s lighting and Jeremy Silver’s sound complete the picture perfectly.

Henry and Hawkins are both excellent; Henry capturing the insecurity beneath the loutish Howie’s almost pathetic bravado, Hawkins also conveying the vulnerability beneath the Rookie’s far cooler façade. By the end of the piece we have come to care about both of them and the denouement is surprisingly moving.

The two actors do a pretty good job with the Oirish accent too (dialect coach, Gabrielle Rogers).

Howie the Rookie is a tough little gem, which sits perfectly in the tiny, 50-seat pub theatre at the Old Fitz. Recommended.

Howie the Rooks runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre until October 25. Bookings: www.sitco.net.au or 1300 307 264