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The Whale review at Ustinov Studio, Bath – ‘an impressive performance’

Shuler Hensley and Ruth Gemmell in The Whale at Ustinov Studio, Bath. Photo: Simon Annand

Broadway actor Shuler Hensley wears a huge padded suit to play the lead in Samuel D Hunter`s intellectually challenging play The Whale. Hensley, who also played the role in New York, stars as online English composition teacher Charlie. The character is morbidly obese, having used food as a balm for the emotional blows life has brought him.

Ustinov artistic director Laurence Boswell sees Hunter`s play as a metaphor for redemption, delivered through mind-juddering relationships between people who have not only lost their way but also their connection with one another. The play`s episodic nature does rather isolate the message though; nor is it helped by lighting designer Ben Ormerod`s constant staccato black-outs.

The hugely upholstered Hensley, who won an Olivier playing Jud Fry in the 1998 National Theatre production of Oklahama!, sets out the last week of Charlie`s life with an affecting optimism. This is despite being under constant fire from the three angry women in his life – his friend and nurse Liz (played by Ruth Gemmell), his acerbic-tongued daughter Ellie (Rosie Sheehy) and long-time estranged wife Mary (Teresa Banham).

There is also a religious dimension with the arrival of disillusioned Mormon missionary Elder Thomas (Oscar Batterham), constant symbolism from the story of Jonah and Herman Melville`s Moby Dick, and an overworked examination of creative writing.

The theme of finding hope in unexpected places does come through at the end, although it loses an element of credibility when those surrounding Charlie seem so hell-bent on self destruction.

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A play overburdened with metaphorical messages is enhanced by an impressive lead performance by Shuler Hensley