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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All My Sons

Eternity Playhouse, November 5

Meredith Penman, Marshall Napier and Andrew Henry. Photo: Brett Boardman

Meredith Penman, Marshall Napier and Andrew Henry. Photo: Brett Boardman

Darlinghurst Theatre Company has christened the new Eternity Playhouse with Arthur Miller’s first commercially successful play, the gut-wrenching All My Sons from 1947 – and both the venue and the production have come up trumps.

The sensitive conversion of the newly restored Baptist Tabernacle, a 126-year old, heritage-listed building in Burton Street, Darlinghurst features a spacious timber foyer and a beautifully appointed 200-seat theatre with excellent sight lines and acoustics. It all feels fresh and welcoming, while original features such as the ornate ceiling and stained glass windows add to the venue’s charm.

Miller’s tightly plotted play resonates powerfully in the intimate space. Set in the aftermath of World War II, Joe Keller (Marshall Napier) and his wife Kate (Toni Scanlan) are living a life of suffocating denial.

Convicted for knowingly supplying faulty aircraft engine parts from his factory, which caused the death of 21 pilots during the war, Joe was subsequently exonerated leaving his business partner Steve to take the rap. Kate, meanwhile, clings to hope that her son Larry, a fighter pilot, is still alive despite having been missing for three years.

A sense of tragedy hangs over the play from the beginning, as Joe and Kate’s other son Chris (Andrew Henry) invites Larry’s former sweetheart Anne (Meredith Penman) to stay, hoping to marry her. Anne, who grew up next door, is Steve’s daughter.

When Anne’s brother George (Anthony Gooley) arrives, having just visited their father in jail, dark secrets are revealed leaving no possibility of a happy outcome for any of them.

Unlike many of the auteur, re-imagined productions of classics that we have seen in Sydney of late, Iain Sinclair directs a traditional production set in the period and using American accents, but it is fluent, well paced and beautifully performed, unfolding with the inexorable undertow of Greek tragedy.

Scanlan breaks your heart as the desperate, deluded, at times feverish Kate who dares not admit the possibility that her son is dead, while Napier convincingly conveys the gruff bonhomie covering a dark, gnawing secret.

Henry excels as the open-hearted Chris who longs to step out of Larry’s blighted shadow and live his own life, while Gooley ramps up the energy with a bristling anger as George.

On opening night, Penman brought a sparkling warmth to the role of Anne, but due to a major television opportunity has since been replaced by Anna Houston.

In the supporting roles, Sinclair (who plays a doctor as well as directing), Mary Rachel Brown, Briallen Clarke and Robin Goldworthy all acquit themselves admirably.

Luke Ede’s set works well enough and is subtly lit by Nicholas Rayment. Occasionally Nate Edmondson’s music feels a little too overtly manipulative emotionally as in a film score, particularly in the climactic scenes when it is distracting and unnecessary, but that’s a minor quibble.

Performed with an intense honesty, Miller’s timeless story about the link between commerce and war, and self-interest in the name of the family, still rings devastatingly true in this stirring production.

All My Sons runs at the Eternity Playhouse until December 1

 An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 10