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The Whale - Alex Theatre (VIC)

Written by Samuel D Hunter. Directed by Jennifer Sarah Dean.

The Whale Made Me Cry. It will make you too!

Reviewed by Rachael Vassallo

Alex Theatre St Kilda, Melbourne Victoria.

Until July 14th, 2024


The Whale, by Samuel D Hunter was controversial when released as a play script in 2012 and ten years later when produced as a film starring Brendan Fraser. Its portrayal of obesity and self-destructive eating disorders was considered discriminatory, insensitive and fatphobic. Transforming a controversial script into a thought-provoking piece of theatre is challenging as Hunter’s script certainly contained dialogue and themes which would be considered offensive to some audience members.


Director Jennifer Sarah Dean most certainly met this challenge head on. The staging of this rendition of The Whale was utterly brilliant. Sarah Dean showcases that Hunter’s script is heartbreaking more than it is disturbing. The story of a binge-eating obese man, Charlie (Adam Lyon), who befriends a Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas, whose visits to his apartment is only part of the story; Thomas’ youth and naivety were brought out fantastically by Sebastian Li. The primary focus of Charlie’s story is his final wish, to connect with his daughter Ellie, convincingly portrayed by Skye Fellman, whilst under the watchful eye of her mother and Charlie’s former partner Mary (Tania Schneider). Another layer of connection is added through Charlie’s only friend Liz (Melanie Gleeson) who offers her nursing skills to him and assists in his daily life.

The Whale, Melbourne Theatre Company (2024). Images by Ben Andrews


Sarah Dean’s blocking and use of the space showcased the fabulous decisions of the director, who used the space and the set to its full advantage. This direction further enhances the emotive portrayals by the actors.  Another challenge which faced the director was the setting of this play, being Idaho, located in the vastly different environment of the Northwest United States. Creating an authentic understanding of the mannerisms, and speech convincingly to an Australian audience was done so with brilliant accuracy and believability, I believed that I was viewing a performance which took place in the United States.


Lyon’s respectful portrayal of Charlie allowed us to empathise with his cruel situation, particularly his inability to access healthcare. His responses to the cruelty inflicted by Liz and Ellie and his connection to the kind-hearted Thomas allowed the audience to resonate with his situation. It is Fellman’s portrayal of Skye, his daughter and Gleeson’s of Liz, which truly carry this performance. Both are unnecessary cruel to him, which is disturbing for the viewers to witness. Liz takes the role of an enabler yet begs him to see a doctor, while his daughter threatens to murder him with sleeping pills. Both performances were utterly brilliant, especially when mixed in with Li’s curiosity and generosity towards Charlie. Schneider’s portrayal of Mary, offered a complex character who was not developed enough in the performance

...certainly one of the most memorable [performances] I have ever seen and will stick with me for a long time


The entire piece took place in Charlie’s apartment, which emphasised the isolation he experienced. Whilst it is not directly mentioned in the dialogue, it is heavily implied that Charlie has not gone outside since his conditions arose and his state had thus deteriorated. The set designby Harry Gill was utterly brilliant, with impeccable detail which captured the decay of his existence. The placement of the audience was traverse, allowing for a more immersive and intimate experience. Extra thought was placed to ensure his kitchen cabinetry was discoloured, his blinds were not sitting correctly, and his furniture was dusty.


The costume design, by Catherine Elliott was equally as brilliant. Charlie’s unkempt appearance is emphasised through garments which appear to have been stained and distressed accurately.


The Whale is a change of what Melbourne Shakespeare Company typically produces, and is a testament to the versatility of it as a production company. It is one of the most upsetting and thought-provoking performances of the year and certainly one of the most memorable I have ever seen and will stick with me for a long time, my tears proving this. The champagne left on the bar for opening night was helpful in composing me for the inevitable conversation with the cast and creatives that follows such a powerfully built production.


CAST & CREATIVES Writer & Director.  Samuel D Hunter, Jennifer Sarah Dean

Starring: Adam Lyon, Skye Fellman, Melanie Gleeson, Sebastian Li and Tania Schneider

Produced by: Melbourne Shakespeare Company

Catherine Elliott: Costume Designer

Ines Kustura: Assistant Costume Designer

Michael Mack: Producer

Harry Gill: Set Designer

Stephanie Watson: Stage Manager

Jack Burmeister: Sound Designer

Laura Irish:Assistant Director

Bridie Pamment: Marketing Co-ordinator

Kris Chainey: Lighting Designer

Tyson Garner: Assistant Stage Manager


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