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Reviews/Perth Festival/Theatre

Powerhouse performances in compelling new play

22 February 2021

Whale Fall, the touching story of a young transgender kid trying to find their own path in life, is a wonderful and intelligent play, writes Jan Hallam.

Whale Fall, The Kabuki Drop, Perth Festival ·
PICA Performance Space, 20 February, 2021 ·

In the exquisite moment waiting for Whale Fall to begin, as I absorbed Bruce McKinven’s minimalist beach house set and pondered the whiteness of the beach sand trucked in for the play, a few things sheeted home.

The first was a memory of Michael Gow’s seminal Australian play, Away, at the Octagon Theatre a scarily long time ago. And there was anxiety: the PICA performance space is no actor’s refuge. Everything would be exposed, good, bad and indifferent, all within spitting distance of the audience.

Then there was the heightened anticipation around the play itself – its discourses on transgender acceptance and ecological doom – and would it contribute positively to these urgent conversations?

So, no pressure, then, for this world-premiere production, produced by local multi-disciplinary arts company The Kabuki Drop, commissioned by PICA and co-presented with Perth Festival.

The Sydney-based playwright, Ian Sinclair, was inspired by a 2015 essay that WA writer Rebecca Giggs wrote after seeing a whale beaching in the South-West. Her observations on how and why this young whale found itself dying in the shallows, and the reactions of the many spectators who gathered each long day of the creature’s death throes, are a meditation on whales’ physical and spiritual hold on humans and the ecological disaster that is our oceans.

Luke Hewitt as Irving, Alexandria Steffensen, centre, as Tarlina, and Caitlin Beresford-Ord as Nadine in ‘Whale Fall’. Photo: Dan Grant

Whale fall is the term for the processes of a whale’s death and decay, its bones finally settling to the deep dark.

Sinclair was inspired by the questions Giggs’s essay opened up and he added a couple of his own, in particular how a young transgender kid navigates their own tempestuous path while trying to avoid becoming the unintentional “whale fall” of their divorced parents’ toxic relationship. Along the way, it thrashes out our unrealistic expectations of each other – as partners, as parents, as children – and how disappointment seems to be culturally encoded in every unconscious step we take.

The challenge Sinclair throws down is to change the narrative from malignant thoughtlessness – where rigid doctrine and politics do the deciding – to one of knowledge, understanding and love.

This is a wonderful play. It is intelligent, it is touching, it is honest.

Director Melissa Cantwell and assistant director Mossy Johnson have the steady hands of experience and enthusiasm needed to steer the work through sentimentality to deliver an authentic, honest production.

However, it is the actors’ powerhouse honest performances that make this production of Whale Fall a triumph.

Ashton Brady is incandescently good as Caleb. Photo: Dan Grant

Alexandria Steffensen plays Irving’s new partner Tarlina, who is, on the surface the “adult” of the three grown-ups, taking on a supportive role for young Caleb and trying desperately to get some semblance of détente between Nadine and Irving so the papers for the first stage of Caleb’s pre-puberty transitioning can be signed. However, it would also serve Tarlina’s notion of family unity if Nadine just disappeared again, leaving her as Caleb’s trusted and only true supporter. It’s a subtle thread, but Sinclair doesn’t create angels and villains, just humans.

Caitlin Beresford-Ord and Luke Hewitt sizzle as the warring parents, Nadine and Irving. Nadine has abandoned the home, leaving Irving literally holding the baby, their daughter Haley. Years later, when Nadine returns home to the family beach shack to “discuss” Haley’s transformation into Caleb, pent-up anger and frustration spill out dangerously. While she forlornly asks, “Where did Haley go?”, Irving angrily asks “Where did her mother go?” It is a bitter but beautifully written war of words that Hewitt and Beresford-Ord deliver with conviction and passion.

That leaves the performance of Ashton Brady as Caleb. He was incandescently good. Only 12 years old, Brady has the stage presence and command of a veteran, and a vulnerability in his performance that marks the best of actors. Caleb’s interactions with Irving and Nadine’s tempers and temperaments were bewitching. From early tentative moves with Nadine – the mother Caleb barely knew – to asserting the desire to formally transition, to the heartbreaking honesty of their confusion, Brady’s performance was extraordinary.

On top of his blistering character work, Brady must also narrate the fate of the dying whale, which runs through the spine of the play.

The whale of Giggs’s essay is calculated to be only about a year old. A young whale that will be weighed down and sunk before it has lived the life it was destined to live.

It may be Caleb’s destiny, too, if they are failed as well.

This excellent play is a great contribution to this conversation that must be had, and to the canon of Australian theatre.

Whale Fall continues at PICA Performance Space until Saturday, 27 February, 2021.

Pictured top: Caleb (Ashton Brady) and Nadine (Caitlin Beresford-Ord) get reacquainted in ‘Whale Fall’. Photo: Dan Grant

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Author —
Jan Hallam

Jan Hallam has been watching theatre for a living for the past 30 years. Working for both The West Australian and The Sunday Times, she has been lucky to have experienced just how diverse and talented the Perth arts scene is. When she’s not sitting in the dark, she’s staring at the light of a computer screen as editor and journalist. She’s the queen of the sandpit castle.

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