Courtney McManus’s show, WHALE, follows her personal journey to self-acceptance despite the fatphobia and queerphobia she experienced in high school and adulthood. It’s a sad fact that it remains radical for someone to declare their fatness and their queerness without shame.
The frustration that comes with noting the dogged endurance of such shame is one McManus allows space for in the show – the anger, in other words, at having been subject to ignorance and prejudice again and again that offers her, and I expect many in her audience, necessary catharsis and solidarity. But in 2023, audiences are familiar with the mode of confessional theatre typical to Fringe shows and justifiably weary of the trauma that it is often couched in.
WHALE seems unaware of the tropes of this well-worn style of theatre, nor of the exciting innovations in this space from artists interested particularly in fatness and queerness (Cake Daddy, Hot Fat Crazy). For an hour, McManus recounts loosely related moments of fatphobia and queerphobia she’s experienced.
It’s a stark and confronting glimpse into the prejudice she’s been subject to from friends, family and her doctor. But despite the show insisting that McManus is funny, there is a near-complete lack of comedy to vary the tone between these confronting anecdotes.
Ultimately we are left watching a montage of remembered traumas play out back to back at a breakneck speed that rushes helter skelter to cover them all. These are ‘the waves’, so McManus tells us, of trauma-based memories that crash into her (the transitions between each signalled, for no discernible reason, by an energetic whip of her pony tail).
Buried beneath these waves are various plot-lines brought out to offer more didactic examples of fatphobia. Storylines include McManus’s relationship to her mum, her friendship with various high school friends, her fiancé and a teenage love interest.
Though interesting stories, they are too thinly written to offer much dramatically, and the script moves half hazard trying to fit them all in with no discernible connective thread between them other than their shared fatphobic assumptions.
In recent years there’s been a more critical questioning of what trauma-based plots do to performers and audiences. Gone are the days when one can base a show entirely on re-enactments of trauma without significant dramatic or theatrical justification. That justification isn’t here, and the result is that the show reads more like a glimpse into a personal diary than a theatre show.
McManus is a likeable performer and clearly has a strong control of comedic timing when she’s given the opportunity to showcase it. But as the show approaches its conclusion, it sheds all comedic or theatrical pretence in favour of consecutive sermonic monologues – another common pitfall for this kind of confessional subgenre.
Each overwritten monologue tell us what we were meant to learn from McManus’s experience, obscuring her genuinely affecting descriptions of her self-acceptance (most beautifully evoked during a conversation with her mum). It also re-treads an odd, and by now tired, trend in art that implicitly presents traumatic experiences of prejudice as teachable moments or lessons for self-acceptance rather than obstacles to it.
Ultimately, WHALE is a show that cannot escape cliché. But perhaps it’s not necessarily trying to. It concludes with McManus declaring that she’ll never allow anyone to belittle or shame her ever again. It’s an affecting conclusion and a testament to her self-acceptance made all the more powerful when McManus’s partner Claire comes up from the audience to kiss her.
If WHALE does anything to cement that acceptance, or facilitate it in others, then it should be counted as a success. But as a piece of theatre, it leaves much to be desired.
Queen Victoria Women’s Centre – Millarri Murnmut, 210 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne
Performance: Friday 6 October 2023
Season: 3 – 7 October 2023 (closed)
For more information, visit: www.crashtheatre.com.au for details.
Image: Courtney McManus – photo by Declan Young
Review: Guy Webster