By Adam Rafferty
Those of us who’ve spent many an hour in worn, old community halls, rehearsing for theatrical productions or perhaps even with choirs, will be very familiar with The Heartbreak Choir’s setting. In the opening scene, choir master Barbara (Maude Davey) enters her local CFA hall to the tune of dead flies buzzing on the windowsills. The familiar ‘plink, plink, plink’ and buzz of the fluorescent tubes as she turns on the lights and numerous attempts at getting the faulty, wall-hung heating strip to ignite are very familiar sounds, especially when accompanied by the sights of honour roll boards, an ancient portrait of the Queen and a dusty old piano under a sheet.
Barbara has come here for the first rehearsal of the newly formed choir that has splintered off from their local Catholic Church sponsored one, due to mysterious circumstances related to one of their beloved members, and her best friend, the late Caro. It’s a small country town, although obviously undergoing the influence of gentrification, so the repercussions of Caro’s death are being felt across the tight-knit group of singers and friends. There’s Totty (Louise Siverson), an in-your-face and hard-working spinster with a love for baking, but far less skill; Mack (Carita Farrer Spencer) a proud herb farmer who’s sensitive about her weight; her daughter Savannah (Emily Milledge), a painfully shy teen, with a soprano voice that has just got her into the conservatorium; and Aseni (Ratidzo Mambo), a heavily pregnant immigrant from Zimbabwe who has brought African tunes to the choir’s repertoire.
While everything about them says ‘community choir’, they insist that they’re not, and they’ve even booked a gig paying $300, soon to happen at a local winery. Now, how to find songs that will pair well with the vigneron’s new Sangiovese! But things fall somewhat off course when Caro’s widower Peter (William McInnes) arrives and wants to join the group, uncovering that he knows less about the circumstances of her death than they do.
This charming play, with its warm bunch of characters and familiar setting, is a fitting tribute to its late author, (and former MTC Associate Director) Aidan Fennessy, who sadly passed away in 2020 before seeing The Heartbreak Choir in production, although he did see a read through. At its centre, it is based on a tragedy, which Fennessy uses as a springboard to create tender, touching moments as the group, and in particular Peter and Barbara, herself a psychologist, come to terms with Caro’s death. The playwright is less consumed with the sad circumstances and causes of the unseen woman’s heartbreaking demise, but rather how her friends and family, in a small community cope in the aftermath. That choice, and Peter Houghton’s sensitive direction, is what makes this play one that is not tragic, but instead uplifting and life affirming, which is in no small part influenced by the music featured also. Musical Director Vicky Jacobs has coached the cast through their acapella singing beautifully, allowing for convincing and enchanting renditions of Zulu song Helele Mama, Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson’s Winter Song and Birds of Tokyo’s Lanterns.
Just like every good choir, this is an ensemble piece and as a group the cast work together uniformly well. Davey deftly balances Barbara’s humour and grief with the steely determination of a leader who works in mental health care. Siverson, playing against type, imbues Totty with amusing physical characteristics, but does edge close to caricature at times. Mambo depicts a woman deep in the depths of her third trimester with wonderful realism. She’s equal parts nurturing, determined and dismissive. The larger-than-life McInnes brings great pathos to the local police officer and mourning husband who has an amusing tension with Farrer Spencer’s Mack, as the pair tease (or torture) each other over their weight concerns. Milledge’s portrayal of the timid and goth inspired Savannah provides great contrast to the rest of the characters, including Peter and Caro’s son, the basketball-loving Beau (Julian Weeks). Weeks delivers one of the most poignant moments in the play, as Barbara gives him a charm bracelet that Caro had gifted her previously.
The potential was there for this story to dig deeper, and more meaningfully, into the issues surrounding Caro’s death, which might have created a thought-provoking issues piece. However, the decision to put the focus on the lives left behind and the wonderful ways they support one another, while less challenging, feels right for this moment in time. It highlights the healing energy borne out of pain, making it the perfect way to celebrate its creator.
Images: Jeff Busby