The Whale does not sound like an attractive premise for a play.

Six hundred pound Idaho local Charlie (Keith Agius), confined to his apartment, sits on the couch all day, marking essays and watching re-runs of Judge Judy. A series of visitors – his long-time nurse and confidant (Meredith Penman), a Mormon missionary (Alex Beauman) and Charlie’s estranged, self-centred teenage daughter (Chloe Bayliss) – use the man for their own purposes, alternately caring for and enabling him. Over the course of the play, Charlie’s apartment becomes as much a hermitage for them as it is for the play’s obese protagonist.

A counter-intuitive comedy, The Whale draws no end of laughs from its very moving story penned by Samuel D Hunter. Aside from a few throwaway lines that will be lost on an audience outside of the US, this play translates superbly well in its Australian premiere, in no small part due to the performances of the production’s cleverly cast ensemble. Agius holds our attention throughout as the play’s sympathetic, tragic titular character, while Bayliss and Penman are particularly compelling as two of The Whale’s more complex characters.

A simple premise which seemingly does not lend itself to abrupt narrative turns, The Whale nevertheless surprises us with a couple of well-placed and welcome twists.

A significantly overstated metaphor relating to the play’s title asserts itself throughout the production, while the somewhat heavy-handed lighting and sound design in the moments where the analogy being drawn is most apparent distracts at times from a play that is otherwise confidently driven by its dramatic revelations and well-constructed character arcs.

What could have been depicted as an overly dramatic piece manages instead to be a refreshing breath of uneasy yet compelling comedy, heralded by a more than competent cast who knew exactly how to squeeze their strong source material for both laughs and dramatic effect.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The Whale
Written by Samuel D Hunter
Directed by Shane Anthony
With Chloe Bayliss, Keith Agius,  Meredith Penman, Hannah Waterman & Alex Beauman

The Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo
2 February – 4 March 2016

Glen Falkenstein on ArtsHub