The Whale

by | Jul 2, 2024

By Ellis Koch

Before I begin, I must acknowledge that the opening lines of any review are probably the most important when it comes to reader impact and as such, I must preface this entire piece by saying that MSC Studio have done an excellent job of their production of The Whale and, as a piece of theatre, it is of a high quality and is thoroughly engaging.  I say this now because I’m not entirely sure that I enjoyed the story or the characters even though I quite enjoyed the production itself and I would encourage people to support MSC Studio’s hard work.

The Whale, written by Samuel D. Hunter, is a play about a six hundred pound man, Charlie, `who has slowly been gorging himself to death in an effort to cope with trauma.  Surrounding Charlie throughout the play are characters who are also dealing with trauma and, like Charlie, these traumas manifest themselves in not-so-positive behaviours. I found The Whale to be a difficult viewing experience – it is confronting, painful and at times vulgar and although the play is often billed as being a tale of redemption I left the theatre with the feeling of futility and frustration more than hope.  However, not all stories are to be enjoyed and not all theatre serves to make one smile or feel good – some of the best theatrical experiences one can have (perhaps, even – the best?) are the ones that leave you in a state of reflection, asking questions of the play and of yourself and the world around you.  By the end of the play The Whale certainly had me asking questions but, rather than existential, political, philosophical or moral questions it had me questioning “why?” What was the point of the play?  To what end did I sit through one and a half hours of frustrating and frustrated characters behaving in frustrating ways?  Was there really a redemption arc or was it just a slice of reality held up to the audience to remind us that in real life redemption isn’t always easy or even possible and that people who are hurting often behave in hurtful ways? And, my final and I guess ultimate question for the sake of this review:

Do any of these questions diminish the experience itself or the great work of MSC Studio?

The answer? My subjective opinion on the content of the play should not discourage others from seeing it at all – quite the opposite, really, as one would hope you go to the theatre to invoke your own subjective experience and because, objectively, the cast and crew of MSC Studio’s ‘The Whale’ have crafted a very fine piece of theatre.

So, on to the review . . .

I found the minimalist set design by Harry Gill to be intriguing.  The action plays out in Charlie’s living room on a runway style stage with the audience seated on either side.  It gave the cast a long, though somewhat narrow playing space and while I found it interesting it did at times feel as though one was at a tennis match, so great was the length of the stage when the proximity of the audience was factored in.  It also felt a little too clean, neat and tidy considering Charlie’s predicament – not just his excessive weight but also that he is clearly suffering from acute depression.  The lighting design by Kris Chainey was simple and effective and the transitions between each scene and night into day created a fitting mood for the play – this kind of dim, cloistered feel that enhanced Charlie’s isolation from the world.  Something that on occasion took me out of the play, however, was the sound design by Jack Burmeister.  I’m not entirely sure what Burmeister and director Jennifer Sarah Dean were going for with it but I found having (what was it, light somewhat meditational music and what was perhaps an abstract sound of wind?) playing over some of the dialogue and monologues throughout the show to be really distracting rather than enhancing anything of what was happening before me.  The rise and swell of the music as characters delivered critical moments of dialogue and the eventual climax of the music over the end of this dialogue somewhat foreshadowed what the actor was doing and I felt it was, unfortunately, completely unnecessary.

The cast all gave solid performances although I did find Skye Fellman’s Ellie (Charlie’s daughter) to be a bit one-note.  Even though Ellie is a brutal, brutal character who doesn’t let up throughout the entirety of the play I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any way Fellman could have brought a little more nuance to the performance.  There isn’t, admittedly, much room in the play for the character to show a softer side but vulnerability and trauma, even amongst angsty, furious and vengeful teenagers, has more than one speed.  This is, perhaps, somewhat the fault of the play itself though as we really don’t get that much time to explore Ellie’s character as an audience – our experience of Ellie is mostly filled with angry taunts and slurs and the occasional allusion to the root of her trauma as the play manages to sidestep about 15 years of her upbringing.  Mind you, Fellman does well to capture the perpetually angry teenager and delivers her vicious barbs convincingly and perhaps it’s more the lack in the writing of her character that I lament.

The main character Charlie, played by Adam Lyon, is a physically demanding role.  Some people may think this somewhat counter-intuitive considering Charlie spends most of his time confined to his couch but this is far from the case.  There is, of course, the added weight of full-body padding that Lyon has to carry around for an hour and a half (He is on stage the entire time) but it is his stellar efforts at maintaining Charlie’s labored breathing, gaining intensity as the show progresses, which would have been incredibly difficult to physically pull off.  It is little wonder, then, that Lyon is not only a highly qualified voice and vocal coach but also a practitioner of Feldenkrais – a system designed to equip a person with an acute, holistic awareness of posture, breathing and movement.  Lyon gives a soft and tender performance as Charlie but his breathing technique is what really sells the physically painful reality of the character – something I find fascinating as I’m not sure one could say that of any other character in any other play.  The padding that he wears is painfully obvious in some parts of the play – I do wish it had been sculpted a little more smoothly in places – but this padding only serves a relatively minor visual function, in my opinion, because Lyon treats us to such a stellar physical performance that I am certain I would have bought into the role just as much without the padding – the same way Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man is still played convincingly without prosthetics.  A really strong performance from Adam.

Sebastian Li as Elder Thomas also brings a really strong performance to the show.  Li’s believable and enthusiastic delivery of Elder Thomas’ moralising about Jonah and the Whale captures the matter-of-fact, smug assuredness of religious zealotry and fervor that more often than not wounds while masquerading as offered salvation.  I feel Li gave a really grounded performance and found him a pleasure to watch and to listen to.  His understated delivery of Elder Thomas’ dialogue is casual and relaxed, something greatly needed to balance out the harshness of Ellie and of Liz (Melanie Gleeson).

Melanie Gleeson as Liz is sharp and effective in her portrayal of Charlie’s best and only friend.  Liz’s story is incredibly painful and full of as much, if not more, trauma than Charlie’s and she is quite a tragic character.  Gleeson plays her with a stern helplessness, tense, protective and completely distraught even as she herself enables Charlie and his self-destructive behaviour.  There was a taught, harrowed and somewhat on the edge energy to Gleeson’s performance that highlighted the unseen struggle her character must be going through outside of Charlie’s life – tired, depressed and at her wits’ end, her own nerves frayed as she watches Charlie implode – Gleeson really nailed the role.

Rounding out the cast is Tanya Schneider as Mary, Charlie’s ex-wife and the mother of Ellie.  We don’t really spend much time at all with Mary but Tanya plays the bitter, tired and alcoholic ex-wife with a no nonsense, cutting air that relents somewhat as she is faced with Charlie’s condition.  It’s a nice performance that conveys the tired struggle of Mary as a single mother, her residing bitterness towards Charlie and a softer, kinder side borne from nostalgia and the inescapable reality of Charlie’s situation.

As a whole, the production is a very solid endeavour from MSC Studio.  Jennifer Sarah Dean has sculpted a cohesive work from the material and guided her cast towards strong performances.  The pace of the show is excellent – one of the key reasons that kept me so engaged in spite of the relentlessly bleak characters and story and while The Whale is certainly a difficult and brutal play to watch, MSC Studio’s production is very, very worthy of your time.

Image: Ben Andrews

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