BATH’s Ustinov Theatre, under the artistic direction of Laurence Boswell, has been hailed as the country’s leading studio theatre, and the opening of Samuel D Hunter’s The Whale will undoubtedly underpin that well-deserved reputation.
Running two hours without interval, it charts a week in the life of Charlie, a morbidly obese man who lives in a dirty, dingy apartment in a small town in rural Idaho, teaching English grammar and literature on line.
Charlie is emotional and endlessly optimistic, though he knows he can’t last much longer. Confronted by his long-estranged teenage daughter, his ex-wife and an eager but confused young Mormon missionary, he tries to make sense of his life and plans for his legacy.
Hunter is a gay man from Idaho, who made a living teaching angry and disinterested high school students while living with his boyfriend in a New York attic. He says his play is (perhaps inevitably) partly autobiographical, inspired by his background, his life and a new future in a more tolerant time.
The Whale was developed over several years, with the first read through six years ago. This is its UK premiere. The award-winning star of the 2012 original US production, Shuler Hensley, is in Bath to reprise his role as a 600lb man.
He is joined by a brilliant cast for this poignant, sometimes funny and ultimately shattering play. The writer has an incisive and multi-layered grasp of human psychology, and there is nothing simplistic in The Whale, which explores our reactions to huge creatures – with frequent references to Biblical whales, Moby Dick and the sea as Charlie helplessly confronts the reality of his situation.
Helped only by nurse Liz, who brings him junk food and drink with her love and solace, Charlie is literally beached in his apartment.
There is an astonishing performance by recent RADA graduate Rosie Sheehy as Ellie, the furious and self-obsessed daughter. The audience might think the arrival of the wronged wife Mary (Teresa Banham) would be a vitriolic confrontation but like so much about this profound and insightful play, expectations may be confounded.
And Bath’s own Oscar Batterham, so impressive in the Feydeau farce The One That Got Away at the Ustinov, gives a new dimension to the idea of Mormons on mission.
The Whale is on in Bath until 2nd June. It may be the finest production at Boswell’s Ustinov yet – and that is really saying something.
Photographs by Simon Annand