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‘The Whale’ // Melbourne Shakespeare Company

Opening night at The Alex Theatre holds us in an intimate space to tell us the compelling story of The Whale that is honest and heartfelt at every moment.  There are laughs and tears, and the journey has both its pleasantries and sadness in what life can hold.  

The Whale is a fictional play written by Samuel D. Hunter in 2012, which came into the spotlight in 2022 when it was adapted into a movie under the same title.  This film which was directed by Darren Aronofsky, starred the likes of Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink and Hong Chau. It won many awards and accolades and propelled the captivating story into audiences hearts through its message of redemption and honesty, and themes of grief and being true to yourself.

Set in Idaho, the storyline follows 40 something year old Charlie (Adam Lyon) who weighs over 250kg and is spending his life hiding in his apartment. He cannot stop eating, despite the efforts of his only friend Liz (Melanie Gleeson) who is a nurse.  She is trying her best to assist him, but the sad reality is that he is near his death.  His heart is failing and his blood pressure is through the roof.  Charlie can barely move and requires assistance just to get to the bathroom. He asks to see his estranged 17 year old daughter Ellie (Skye Fellmen) in hopes of assuring he has left one good thing in the world as he exits, but then an accidental visit from a young missionary Elder Thomas (Sebastian Li) brings to this story more questions of hope, humanity and despair.  When Charlie’s ex-wife Mary (Tanya Schneider) enters the room, she adds to the depths of this narrative – bringing to us a shadow of his past life before he fell into his own demise, and allows insight into Ellie’s anger and pain.  There is great love, reflection and sincerity throughout this play, and it completely captivates the audience from start to finish.  

Adam Lyon in the role of Charlie leads a brightly talented cast that has allowed the Victorian premiere of The Whale to truly shine in every way.  He is sincere in his portrayal of this incredibly complex character, and we believe all the emotions he feels. Towards the end of the show in particular, every breath Lyon takes – you hold with him.

Contrasting with a different strength, Skye Fellmen’s portrayal of Ellie is sharp and confident.  She shows depth in all of the words she spits out, with teenage frustration and a gripping delivery.  Melanie Gleeson as Liz is the greatest friend you could ask for, as she fights for Charlie and loves and cares for him. The journey she faces, perhaps the toughest of them all. Gleeson’s portrayal here is both believable and captivating. She is the key to what propels this production into a realistic experience that you become a part of.

Sebastian Li as Elder Thomas adds a complication that comes with humour and development within the story.  His appearance in the play brings us insight into other emotions and sides to the various characters on stage, with Li himself showing perhaps the most development in character.  Thrown into an apartment blasting pornography and puffs of illegal smoke, this Mormon flounders around in an attempt to offer hope. Li’s depiction here is convincing with a clear and precise delivery that displays his talent.

Tanya Schneider’s character in Mary brings balance to the play and she is convincing in her depiction of the struggles faced by this ex-wife.  Schneider displays poise in her part, with understanding despite loss, reflection in life and a fondness in her character’s shared history.  This cast group together creates a dramatic punch with a show that is told with honesty.

Director Jennifer Sarah Dean should be proud of every moment held on stage, within a simple set that has been so very well thought out and designed with great care.  It allows for the characters to move flawlessly through the story that is only told within this home dwelling.  The use of stage lighting helped the story move forward, as did the music and background sounds when adding to the overall ambiance. 

As the audience sits almost within the acting space, the emotions become even more raw and real. The Whale is a play that slices into a household that could be anyone’s home, the next door neighbor or that place just down the road. You never know what is behind closed doors, nor do you know what exists beyond an online conference or call. As if a glimpse into the recent COVID lockdowns that we wish not to remember or mention, we all felt a sense of captivity amongst our own four walls. Whilst it is hard to watch Charlie’s struggle in The Whale, you do understand how he came to be.  Sometimes it’s small unanswered pauses that lead to a greater problem, and once that is so large it is hard to find a starting place to commence any sort of resolution or saving.  

This play brings to light questions about our worth, identity, relationships and direction. The Melbourne Shakespeare Company has presented The Whale with expertise and conviction.

The Whale’ performs 28th June until 14th July at The Alex Theatre.  For more information visit the Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s website.

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