Originally commissioned by the Melbourne Theater Company for its 2020 season, The Sorrow Choir is the latest piece from the late Aidan Fennessy. It’s a miracle of optimism and humor from a man who knew he was dying of cancer when he wrote it. It’s also direct and refreshing storytelling, with no laborious agenda or obscure meaning.
Indeed, there’s a wonderful verisimilitude to this Peter Houghton-directed production, which maintains a naturalistic sense of drama and space throughout its 130 minutes. The set is a mid-century community hall in country Victoria, complete with rolls of honor, a whimsical little wall-mounted radiator and a portrait of the Queen from the early days of her reign. Realistic crash sounds include the ticking of the radiator, native birds and cicadas, and the occasional car stopping outside, headlights sliding over the upper lobby windows.
A handful of locals gather to sing. It’s the kind of mixed group you might find in a country town that moves with the times. There’s the pragmatic Totty, whose family has thrived here for generations, the outgoing farmer Mack and her introverted teenage daughter Savannah. There’s also Barbara, a well-spoken leftist psychologist who moved here ten years ago, and Aseni, a migrant Zimbabwean doctor who works at the deli. Eventually, we also meet the reluctant policeman Peter and his son Beau, who hang around almost without a word while the others go about their business.
Different personalities shine through as the choir buddies share news, exchange banter and differences of opinion, and reveal heartbreak between occasional songs. They recently parted ways with the choir that sings in the hall of the Catholic Church due to an ethical difference of opinion, and are also quietly mourning the passing of former member Caro, who was Peter’s wife. The past tragedy is revealed little by little, forming the dramatic heart of the play.
The actors enthusiastically embrace their characters, as well as each other – sometimes quite literally. Maybe singing together has, like The Sorrow Choir defenders, inspired a joyful sense of unity. As Chorus Leader Barbara, Maude Davey is a calm and inclusive leader-counsellor, but eventually lifts the lid on barely contained grief. William McInnes almost steals the show, hilariously expressing Peter’s awkwardness in speaking up. His physical comedy is a hoot, as Peter’s police training comes in as a last resort, but McInnes also nails moments of pathos as this bottled-up man tries to come to terms with his grief.
Three more broadly drawn characters also deliver the laughs in different ways. Ratidzo Mambo totally convinces as the heavily pregnant Aseni and hits the right notes with this character’s black-and-white but ultimately positive attitude. Louise Siversen suggests Totty is on the spectrum, as she regurgitates facts and recoils slightly from human contact, while Carita Farrer Spencer is even more overtly funny as the wise Mack.
Making his professional theater debut, Julian Weeks quickly convinces us that Beau is an aimless youngster with little to say, before subtly revealing the young man within him in a handful of center stage moments. Emily Milledge intrigues as Savannah, who usually communicates only in inaudible whispers with people she trusts, but then bursts out with an opinion or, more often, in a beautiful song.
Milledge’s soprano is the exceptional voice of the cast, but their collective musical moments, chosen and conducted by Vicky Jacobs, are delicious. Highlights are a gospel song from Aseni’s homeland and the uplifting finale which, with a simple but highly effective change from Christina Smith’s set, brings the audience into the reality of the piece. Like the set, Smith’s costumes highlight The Sorrow Choirfrom verisimilitude, from Totty’s neat RM Williams-style workwear to Savannah’s Gothic draperies and boots. Hats off to J. David Franzke and Matt Scott for the realism of their sound and light design, respectively.
This piece makes you feel like a fly on the wall, watching and listening to the revelation of a past tragedy, but ultimately witnessing the power of friendship and music to make life better. The repercussions of foul play at the end of the story are ignored in favor of a happy ending, which seems lazy, but otherwise The Sorrow Choir is a warm evening at the theatre.
Melbourne Theater Company The Sorrow Choir is at the Sumner Theater until May 28.