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May 1, 2013

REVIEW: Beached | Southbank Theatre, Melbourne

He's 400kg and can't leave the couch -- it's the drama around him that makes Melissa Bubnic's Beached such a moving and timely journey.

Anthony Ahern, Susie Dee and Damien Sunners in Beached | Southbank Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

Victorian writer Melissa Bubnic has plenty to show for a short career. The VCE high achiever has gone on to win several prestigious writing prizes from Arts Victoria, La Mama, Ian Potter Cultural Trust and The Children’s Literature Board of Australia. Her most recent project, Beached, won the 2010 Patrick White Award. It’s not hard to see why.

Arty is the world’s fattest teenager. At 18 years old, he tips the scales at a whopping 400kg, confined to the couch in his bedroom where he is cared for by his mother JoJo, a chronic feeder and Freudian nightmare. In order to qualify for a life-saving gastric bypass operation, Arty needs to shed 50kg, and while doing so, submit to documentation on the humiliating reality TV series Shocking Fat Stories. He also has a youth worker to contend with, Louise, whose no-nonsense approach to life conflicts with not only his mother, but also Arty’s paralysing sense of self worth.

Damien Sunners is perfect as Arty. Wearing a repulsively accurate fat suit, Sunners appears to have grown roots to the couch he sits on. He captures Arty’s sweet demeanour with a shy, apologetic manner and soft spoken phrases. The quiet determination Sunners shows battles fiercely with Susie Dee’s domineering portrayal of JoJo, who does everything in her power to dissuade Arty from losing weight. Dee’s performance is flawless as the insecure and lonely woman who can’t bear to lose her child to his own independence, but whose stubborn “mother knows best attitude” sees her refuse to admit it to herself.

Fanny Hanusin plays uptight Louise with aplomb; her brisk, professional manner slowly melts away to show a softer, multi-layered human being, more compassionate than most. Hanusin does a great job switching from businesslike to sympathetic, and ultimately brings the house down with a show-stealing temper tantrum. Working alongside Louise is shape-shifter Anthony Ahern. A theatrical gem, Ahern plays the producer of Shocking Fat Stories primarily, and weaves in and out of support characters like Amy Schusser, author of Lay Off The Gravy, and other gastric band survivors.

In the face of shows like The Biggest Loser, and the growing obesity crisis, Beached is not your average story. Weight loss is as topical as reality TV is exploitative — Beached explores both.

The root of the problem seems to lie in JoJo, a woman who chose her life partner even though he was no prize, because “neither was I”. Her poor self image has been reflected on her son, who confuses her emotional abuse with unconditional love. Then there is Louise, the single woman in her late 30s who lives for her career and has no time for excuses and time wasters. Why is she so tough on everyone? Letting her guard down proves dangerous, as she crosses professional boundaries and enters into an inappropriate relationship with Arty, who again confuses affection and in turn builds his entire concept of self esteem on the fact that she is willing to be with him. And the producer, with no sense of shame, who asks all the offensive questions and has no regard for the people around him. His judgemental and potentially sinister personality binds the characters to each other, and ruthlessly breaks them apart. The fragile human psyche is displayed in all its grotesque glory.

Yet Beached, as a play, is an absolute delight. Warm and funny, it takes dark moments and turns them light, with a richly Australian script and loveable, sympathetic characters. Rebecca Hayes and Robert Jordan have done a fantastic job with animation and multimedia, and Andrew Bailey has created a cosy home atmosphere with a basic, bogan décor. The actors have a lot of fun with their roles, and the occasional breaking of diegetic lightens the sombre mood.

Beached is for the voyeur in us all.

The details: Beached plays the Lawler, Southbank Theatre until May 10. Tickets on the company website.

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