Review: The Whale (Ustinov Studio)

Laurence Boswell directs Samuel D Hunter’s play

Shuler Hensley and Ruth Gemmell
Shuler Hensley and Ruth Gemmell
© Simon Annand

Much like clockwork The Ustinov has done it again. This little studio theatre in Bath, batting way above average in the prestige stakes, has, much like in its productions of The Father and In The Next Room… before it, given a UK premiere to a modern classic. Samuel D Hunter's The Whale has a weight to it much beyond the gargantuan proportions its protagonist Charlie carries. If it's the premise that draws you in, it's the depths of passion in the text and masterclass in performance that holds you spellbound. It's the kind of night where an audience as one holds its collective breath.

Charlie teaches expository English writing classes online from his sofa which he can barely get out of. Constantly death-throe wheezing and soaked in soil and sweat, he has eaten himself close to death, his 600lb body is breaking down. This, we are told, will be his last week on earth. Yet like the whale of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, allusions to which run throughout the play alongside that of the biblical Jonah and the Whale, this seeming monster has further depths. In Shuler Hensley's superbly sympathetic performance, reprised from the play's New York debut, we see beyond the corpulence to Charlie's agile mind and compassionate beating heart. If the suit that turns him into over half a ton of man is heftily impressive, it is no time at all before you barely notice it. Like Winnie's head popping out of the soil in Beckett's Happy Days the technical limitations imposed on the performance soon make way to the inner workings of the soul. This is a man aware that he is living out his dying embers and wishing to make some amends.

In a series of encounters in his small apartment, designed with greasy ickiness by Tim Shortall, we get to know more about what has brought Charlie to his final reckoning. What at first can seem like random encounters – a young missionary bringing the gospel of the Church of Latter-day Saints finds him convulsing on the sofa – are eventually pieced together. Each character serves to give us more of his history. His Nurse and friend Liz, who brings him chicken buckets and snuggles up to him watching Judge Judy on the sofa has her own reason to hold him tight which is only revealed towards the climax.

Yet it is in his encounters with teenage daughter Ellie, played with blazing teenage insouciance by Rosie Sheehy that the play feels most alive. Charlie abandoned Elle and her mother some 15 years earlier, and his daughter is now an angry high school senior, flunking with barbarous wit and an anger she can't control. She spits out venom to him and shares a joint with the missionary in the work's funniest scene. By the end, she may have revealed a hidden goodness, something beyond her mean girl caricature, but Hunter keeps us guessing. Charlie is an eternal optimist. Most of the audience are not. Her intention can be read both ways.

Like all great plays, The Whale lets us see the man beneath the padding. This is not the issue play you might expect. Instead in Laurence Boswell's perfectly judged production, it is the story of great love and loss, of family, religion and literature. It knocked the stuffing out of me. Unmissable.