on now, PERTH FESTIVAL, Review

PERTH FESTIVAL 2021 | Whale Fall | 5 Stars

Review | Laura Money

When a whale dies, it doesn’t float, it falls down down down into the bottom of the ocean

So begins Whale Fall in a stunning opening monologue by young actor Ashton Brady to a darkened stage, it appears as if he is floating down into the stage’s abyss himself. It’s an interesting opening to The Kabuki Drop‘s show commissioned by PICA and co-presented with Perth Festival, and serves as a clever metaphor throughout the the piece for identity and how one can achieve transcendence through atoms shifting and changing before finally ending their journey. Formed by Melissa Cantwell, The Kabuki Drop are no strangers to thoughtful and innovative theatre and they really deliver with Ian Sinclair‘s brilliant Whale Fall. With a simple yet effective set, fantastic acting, and heartfelt character development complete with complex and emotional relationships, this is theatre in the raw.

Nadine (Caitlin Bersford-Ord) stands on the cusp of her old life and new – hesitantly yet assuredly braving the dunes to place her feet firmly in the ocean, the tug of the tide taking her back to her childhood home. Consisting of a large angled jetty-like stage embedded in pure white sand, the design by Bruce McKinven creates depth in a small space and alludes to the pull of the ocean which represents the past and also the dead whale analogy. McKinven’s innovative use of secret pockets continue to delight as the set opens up to us alongside its cast. Beresford-Ord is such an expressive performer – her guarded attempts to appear flippant when talking to her ex-husband Irving (Luke Hewitt) carve a deep wound in her heart and her lack of understanding, yet burning desire to do so concerning her son Caleb (Ashton Brady) is expressed with every downcast eye – the defenses clouding her face with a curt nod and pursed lip. Hewitt’s Irving is a wounded and compassionate individual, he plays him with understated passion that bursts forth in red-hot anger and recedes into heartbroken tears. The opening scene is intense, an unravelling mystery that speaks to the injustice and pain of the past.

Sinclair’s writing is brilliant as he uncovers the mysterious elements of the past with sharp dialogue and alllusions to a shared past. Who is this mysterious Caleb and why are Nadine and Irving so caught up in his well being? What’s wrong with him? Nothing, as it turns out. Brady’s Caleb is a curious and quirky boy who loves the natural world, in particular the ocean, who appears wise beyond his years. He’s also transgender – and Brady provides a nuance to the character borne only of experience. Caleb must navigate his own identity at a tender age while combating the many well-meaning adults in his life – and some of the not so well meaning ones. Tension is rife between Beresford-Ord and Hewitt as Nadine grapples with the loss of her daughter, not quite prepared to embrace her son. There is an unspoken language that crackles around these two phenomenal actors – they square off in every scene, unable to remain civil for very long as every betrayal, argument, and devastation inflicted upon each other appear to resurface. Hewitt speaks with a permanent lump in his throat and his new partner Tarlina (Alexandra Steffensen) is unable to understand either one of them. Steffensen provides a calming poise to counter the two hot-heads, yet it is her very calmness that makes her an infuriating character. Whale Fall specialises in other people assuming they know what is right for each other but failing miserably to do so.

Ashton Brady gives the performance of a lifetime, though no doubt there will be plenty of other moments of triumph in his future. He is one to watch, as he appears wise beyond his years – a young yet wizened philosopher, contemplating the big issues – identity, sexuality, rejection and relationships, fitting in – that should not be thrust upon children. Cantwell’s direction uses Brady to his full potential, allowing for hiariously frivolous moments like waking up his Mum in the middle of the night, perching him imp-like on the table, legs dangling to indicate playfulness but also poignancy in his discussion about not going in for a swim. Make no mistake – Whale Fall is gritty, intense theatre. While there are absolutley beautiful moments of surprising levity, the majority of the show is a tense gut-punch waiting to happen. Brady’s navigation of self is an absolute rollercoaster – from pure confidence in his artwork and marine biology facts (delivered in a cute and quirky way) to ritualising memory and grappling with how Hayley will always be a part of him, his interpretation of this complex character should be applauded.

Whale Fall is the dark thriller you never expected, full of twists and turns, secrets, lies and betrayals. It worms its way deep into the psyche and continues to burrow long after you’ve left the theatre. Caleb’s haunting soliloquys punctuate the piece with poignancy and grace – as each character could at one point be considered the whale. Everything is addressed maturely yet it isn’t afraid to get messy and tangled, as in real life sometimes there just aren’t answers. Kabuki Drop have delivered a timely and important work. With transgender representation at the fore, Whale Fall is a sensitive and honest exploration of identity and acceptance that is sometimes hard to watch, but never shies away from the truth. It’s stunning theatre.

Whale Fall played at PICA as part of Perth Festival. Even though the show is over, you an check out what The Kabuki Drop are up to HERE

Keep up with The Fourth Wall on Facebook and @fourth_wall_media on Instagram to see what we’re up to this Perth Festival 2021

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