Everyone deals with traumatic events in their own way. Especially when the events do not happen to you directly, but to someone you know or care about. What would you do? Would you make a stand and speak out in support of someone that cannot speak for themselves? Or would you ‘follow the herd’ and try not to make a fuss and move on with your life?
Written by the late Aidan Fennessy and directed by Peter Houghton, the World Premiere of Melbourne Theatre Company’s The Heartbreak Choir explores these concepts through a group of choir singers that have split from their original church group over a matter of principal.
The newly formed choir hire out the local CFA Hall and are determined to make it on their own. Everything is going well until a sixth recruit appears one night during rehearsals and the reasoning and history of the split from the original group are thrusted into the light. The group must deal with the past and grapple with the moral dilemma of re-joining with the group that they left, or do they continue on their own, potentially falling short of talent when it comes time to perform.
From the moment I entered the Southbank Theatre and saw the stage, I was instantly transported back to the cold, draughty, hard floor of my old Scout Hall from when I was a kid. The set is reminiscent of any local hall with the classic kitchenette/canteen with the sliding vinyl privacy screen, to the noisy fluorescent lighting overhead, even down to the dodgy heater in the top corner that barely worked or heated up anything. With a small stage set at the back of the hall, this stage was the perfect representation of a country town CFA Hall.
A massive shout out to set and costume designer Christina Smith for what she created. The set would not be complete without the fantastic lighting by Matt Scott and sound by J. David Franzke. The use of classic country sounds, native birds chirping, flies buzzing around my head and even the sound of the gravel driveway as a car pulled up outside. We even get to see the headlights flow past the windows. This trifecta of design made it feel like I was sitting inside this hall and all three should be immensely proud of what they have created.
MTC’s The Heartbreak Choir cast is lead by choirmaster Barbara portrayed by Maude Davey, a strong, resilient, and passionate member of the community. She is supported by; Totty played by Louise Siversen, who has a strong moral compass and questionable baking abilities, Aseni played by Ratidzo Mambo, the ‘deli doctor’ immigrant, the outspoken, loudmouth Mack played by Carita Farrer Spencer, and her quiet and subdued daughter Savannah, portrayed by Emily Milledge. As mentioned, it is when the sixth recruit Peter, portrayed by William McInnes, joins the choir that things begin to take a turn. Peter, the local senior police office, is also accompanied by his son Beau played by Julian Weeks.
There is plenty to love about each of these characters and I cannot fault any of their performances. I honestly cannot really split them, neither can I pick a clear standout. They are all absolutely wonderful in their respective roles. And as this is a solid production about a choir, where they put on sublime vocal performances with their excellent harmonisation, it is evident that the cast all love and cherish this story, as it shines through in each of their individual roles.
Whilst the underlying message of this production is quite a serious one with topics on sexual assault and suicide, most of the show is surprisingly funny. Whether it be the hilarious ramblings of Mack and how she gossips about what is happening around town, or the physical comedy of Barbara trying to switch on that pesky heater over and over and over again, there was always a funny moment to cut through the serious and sensitive points of conversation that took place. I do not think I have seen an MTC production that has made me laugh as much as this one has. And the classic Aussie slang, references and humour within the comedy is the icing on the already perfectly glazed cake that is The Heartbreak Choir.
It was truly heartbreaking to learn before the beginning of the performance from a speech by the director Peter Houghton, that the playwright Aiden Fennessy had sadly passed away in 2020. Whilst he did witness a few table reads, he never got to see his work on the stage. I was touched to hear that the show’s season run had been dedicated to him and that they even left an empty seat for him in the audience.
It was an absolute privilege to see this body of work on stage – as it almost never happened. The cast and creatives of Melbourne Theatre Company’s The Heartbreak Choir have put on an inspiring, moving finished production that I’m sure Aiden Fennessy would be proud of. I implore you to go and grab yourselves tickets to see this honest, funny, raw, charming and sincere production before it leaves.
The Heartbreak Choir is on at Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until the 28th of May. There are also two performances on the 2nd of May and 9th of May that have a post-show conversation with the cast and creatives. Tickets and more information are available from the MTC website:
Photography by Jeff Busby.