A delightful, poignant, funny, uplifting play with music, The Heartbreak Choir charms its way into our hearts. It features a bunch of quintessential country town Aussies and a Zimbabwean-born immigrant. Barbara (Maude Davey) is the leader of the local choir, which has just had an acrimonious spilt, the reason for which is only revealed as the play unfolds. Barbara and four others have taken a moral stand and walked away determined to press on in a new guise. The lion’s share of the original choir now practices in the Catholic church hall, while Barbara and co. meet at the CFA hall. These are strong willed women with shared history.
A former unsuccessful electoral candidate, Barbara is an empathetic psychologist who always arrives to rehearsals early and lets out a little air. Totty (Louise Siversen) is hardly tactful and rough around the edges. She has done well financially and isn’t into hugs. Mack (Carita Farrer Spencer) is a big presence, effusive and also quite coarse and emotional. She dotes on and often embarrasses her awkward daughter Savannah (Emily Milledge). The latter mostly communicates with Mack and the group by whispering in her mother’s ear. Eight months pregnant, Aseni (Ratidzo Mambo) and her husband (who we don’t see) emigrated from Zimbabwe. Both are doctors (waiting to be allowed to practise in Australia). She is currently working in the local deli. Aseni is a heart-on-sleeve Christian, who is still to come to terms with a number of Australian expressions (the Aussie lingo, if you like).
Into the fray steps a senior policeman, Peter (William McInnes). He is a sizeable, burly man (fearsome, but fragile) who not long ago lost his wife, Caro, an integral member of the original choir. Peter is heartbroken – as is his basketball-loving teenage son, Beau (Julian Weeks). It is what Peter doesn’t know about Caro’s untimely death that provides the cliff hanger at the end of the first act and propels much of the narrative. That and the direction the new choir – to be known as The Heartbreak Choir – will take.
This MTC production is full of merit. The subject matter – being joy and heartbreak – is adroitly handled. Playwright Aidan Fennessy – who passed away in 2020, at the age of 53 – has crafted a work that readily channels light and shade and is most accessible. The laughs are plentiful and heartfelt due to the larger-than-life characters he has created. The talented cast – rippers all – do each distinct persona justice. I readily warmed to them, their peccadilloes accentuated.
As Barbara, Maude Davey is the glue that binds them together. She is a voice of reason who has one big regret. Individually and collectively, Louise Siversen and Carita Farrer Spencer are a scream, generating big personalities. With a broad smile and sass, Ratidzo Mambo makes a valuable contribution as a woman proud of her heritage, who warmly embraces her new culture. Emily Milledge has a visceral way of channelling discomfort. William McInnes uses his depth of voice and large physical manifestation to full effect. As Beau, Julian Weeks (who makes his professional theatrical debut) sees much, but says little. He has a smaller role, but comes into his own as the piece develops.
It is the rough and tumble mixed with warmth and compassion that distinguishes The Heartbreak Choir. The staging by Christina Smith is memorable. The CFA hall with dodgy strip heater on the wall and a stage, over which hangs a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, reminded me of my primary school hall. In fact, it had an uncanny resemblance. Musically, The Heartbreak Choir also impresses, singing gospel numbers and more. The cast, led by the sweet voiced Emily Milledge, harmonises well. It is a most endearing work skilfully directed by Peter Houghton, with musical direction from Vicky Jacobs.
The legacy of Aidan Fennessy lives on in this and his other works, and his family and friends have much to be proud of. The Heartbreak Choir is playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 28th May, 2022.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Barbara and the Camp Dogs (Malthouse) – theatre review
- Lazarus (The Production Company) – theatre review
- An Ideal Husband (MTC) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.