Mum's Choir

Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

22/06/2007 - 14/07/2007

Production Details

by Alison Quigan

Mum’s Choir is a beautiful, heartwarming play about family, celebrating life, laughter, love and music.  It takes place in the O’Reilly family home in the days following the death of Molly, their mother.  She had ambitious plans for the children when they were young and she has ambitious plans for them now – she’s requested that they sing Faure’s famous Requiem at her funeral service.  What with coping with their grief, the visitors making calls of condolence, sibling rivalry, home baking and the funeral arrangements, Mum’s choir have their work cut out to learnt their parts in time.  But they’re determined to give her the send-off she deserves!

Popular local actress Joy Smith returns to the Fortune after a considerable break to play Aunty Nola.  Her involvement with the Fortune stretches back to the Athenaeum days when she appeared in The Country Wife and Blithe Spirit.  She was in the first production staged at Trinity, Middle Age Spread, and has since been seen in Pygmalion, Long Day’s Journey into Night, Suddenly Last Summer, The Diary of Ann Frank, Crown Matrimonial, Deathtrap, Gulls and The Foreigner.

Richard Hanna (playing Kev) is likewise making a return to the Fortune.  He debuted in the world premiere of Rawiri Paratene’s Directions in 1981 before training the following year at Theatre Corporate in Auckland. 

Also in the cast is Julie Edwards, playing Cathy.  A popular local performer, she has worked at the Fortune since graduating from the New Zealand Drama School in 1990.

Clare Adams (Jean) appeared in the 2004 Fortune world premiere of Gary Henderson’s Home Land

Dave McKenzie is a veteran New Zealand professional actor who will be making his Fortune debut with this production. 

Marama Grant (playing Terri) is a recent graduate of NASDA in Christchurch.

Matu Ngaropo completes the cast playing Matt.

Bookings are now open at the usual local ticket agencies or via the website ( for the strictly limited season from June 22 to July 14.  Generous discounts are available for party bookings so get your ‘choir’ together now, decide on a performance and call to reserve your seats! 

CAST  in order of speaking
Noel O'Reilly . . . . . . . David McKenzie
Jean O'Reilly . . . . . . . Clare Adams
Kevin O'Reilly . . . . . . Richard Hanna
Cathy nee O'Reilly . . Julie Edwards
Terri nee O'Reilly . . . Marama Grant
Aunty Nola . . . . . . . . Joy Smith
Matt . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Matu Ngaropo
Delivery Man . . . . . . . Brendan Van Den Berg

Set Design . . . . . . . . . Peter King
Lighting Design . . . . Ulli Briese
Costumes . . . . . . . . . Maryanne Wright Smyth
Stage Manager . . . . .Brendan Van Den Berg
Set Construction . . . Penny Angrick, David Good
Video Editor . . . . . . David Good
Operator . . . . . . . . . .Ulli Briese
Scenic Artist . . . . . . .Martin Maass  

Theatre ,

Truth and humour in well observed rituals

Review by Terry MacTavish 02nd Jul 2007

Yet another warble from Mum’s Choir. Dunedin is the last of the centres to present it so there may not be too much left to say. It’s safe to assume most people know the story: a musical family gathers to bury their mother, and find she expects them to cap their childhood von Trapp act by singing Fauré’s Requiem at the service.

They squabble and reconcile, rehearse the music and go through the comfortingly tedious minutiae of arranging a funeral. Inevitably some skeletons are dragged from their closets and the siblings grow to understand each other a little better. The danger is that our empathy for a situation we have all dealt with or that awaits us will be rendered superficial as the characters burst spontaneously into song after song.

This production largely succeeds in avoiding the pitfall, thanks partly to the easy rapport between the actors, especially the women, which allows us to believe in them as a family; a family that, brought up by a mother who saw music as an expression of the soul and trotted her kids out to perform on every possible occasion, would naturally deal with life’s vicissitudes through a bit of a sing-song. Of course the grandson knows The Good Ship Lollipop: "You lot do it all the time when you get drunk!" Of course they do.

Director Lisa Warrington has also avoided the ‘and now stop everything and sing at the audience’ trap by making excellent use of Peter King’s realistic set.

The opening is quite spooky: tentative entry of the bereaved family, light spilling from the cautiously opened door into a darkened room, familiar to them but bereft of the spirit that gave it meaning. The lights go on and immediately we feel safe. We too know this comfortably middle-class home, from the rose-spattered burgundy wallpaper to the crocheted afghan. There is the hatch through to the kitchen, there is mum’s special chair, there are the family photos on the wall; the veracity of it all enhanced by contributions from the cast.

And the characters really inhabit this space. Singers may seize a lampstand as an impromptu microphone, grab buns to spear with forks and use as tap-dancing feet, or just flop exhausted to croon Java Jive when they are simply too tired to talk. The highlight for me was the exuberant conclusion to the first act, when the sisters emerge ludicrously clad in mum’s ghastly polyester Osti frocks to waggle their rears in a crackling version of Accentuate the Positive.

The long second act admittedly would gain from pruning; it is top-heavy with songs that the action struggles to support. Still it begins promisingly with the arrival of soldier grandson Matt and we never lose the sense that we are getting closer to D-Day and the performance of Fauré’s challenging Requiem, which director Warrington romantically says puts her in mind of "the sound that angels’ wings beating ought to make".

The acting and singing are as assured as the direction. The three sisters are fabulous together and each have their special moments alone: Clare Adams as the anxious eldest, doing an unforgettable number with a nun glove-puppet (yes, really!); Marama Grant as the outspoken and heavily pregnant youngest, exasperated by always missing out on the elder siblings’ secrets; and especially Julie Edwards, also tuneful and funny as the middle sister, but at the same time immensely touching, from her soft sidelong glances at mum in the coffin to the splendid eulogy she has been bullied into delivering.

The brothers are similarly competent, and though I found David McKenzie (the elder) rather low-key and shadowy while Richard Hanna (the younger) tended to over-project, they were committed team players. They are less well-served by the script, the revelation of the secret that haunts the younger provoking surprisingly little response, while the elder’s life is left unexplored.

Hunky Matu Ngaropo as the Māori grandson winningly provides a spiritual and unembarrassed response to death, from his entry saying to his grandmother, "Crazy Pakehas left you all alone, eh?" then singing her a tender waiata, to the poignant moment at the funeral when he steps up to support his mother (Edwards) when she falters. What a lovely son to have reared!

And what a pleasure to welcome Joy Smith back to the Fortune as equally lovable Aunty Nola, whose first act on arriving is matter-of-factly to claim her deceased sister’s electronic chair. Smith’s expression of bliss as she finally gets to operate this chair, the sort that inexorably propels you onto your feet, is simply delicious.

Alison Quigan has amassed a considerable body of work humorously representing the lives of ordinary New Zealanders, whom she understands very well. "I delight in the language of people I know," she says, "they make me laugh and they make me cry and that’s what I try to capture." It seems a fairly simple aim; not one likely to lead to the lofty peaks of say, Renee’s wonderful Wednesday To Come or Touch of the Sun which share some thematic interests with Mum’s Choir.

Yet here the observed rituals are true as well as funny: the cups of tea round the coffin, the cheerful disjointed chat about recipes, sex lives, and tending to the corpse ("I plucked her chin too"), and if many deeper issues remain unexplored and the biggest laugh is scored by a fart, well, dealing with death is ordinary, even mundane, and often grief is released in hilarity.

So Quigan has a sure instinct for what works in a theatre. She provides plenty of performance opportunities for her actors as well as moments of recognition for her New Zealand audiences, and this confident and joyful production certainly makes the most of them all. Even a reserved Dunedin audience was charmed into joining a spirited encore rendition of Haere Mai with mum’s triumphant choir.

Now that I am over my sulks about being the last reviewer for this play, I can concede there is something curiously satisfying about knowing that this play, like the rite of passage it celebrates, is an experience that has been shared by the whole country.


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