Mum's Choir

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

25/03/2006 - 29/04/2006

Production Details

by Alison Quigan
directed by Catherine Downes
musical director Laughton Pattrick

Molly O’Reilly, the family matriarch, has a dying wish. When the family find out what it is – what a furore! Returning to the homestead in Palmerston North to arrange her funeral and wake, her adult children bicker, reminisce, sing …

Mum’s Choir sold out at both the Court Theatre, Christchurch, and Centrepoint Theatre, Palmerstion North.

David McKenzie
Lyndee-Jane Rutherford
Jeff Kingsford-Brown
Heather Bolton
Carmel McGlone

Theatre ,

2 hrs 5 min incl. interval

Mini von Trapp choir

Review by Lynn Freeman 08th Apr 2006

MUM’S Choir is a crowd pleaser on several levels: most of us have lost someone we love dearly and wish we’d appreciated them more in life; many people like a good knees-up tune; and theatre goers enjoy a production that’s performed with panache and packed with humour.

It’s a celebration of life, love, family and music. It’s a reminder too that funerals bring out the best, and worst, in families and push them either closer together or further apart.

The plays’ premise is a simple one – Molly’s five children gather in her house to organise her funeral. The family was like a mini Von Trapp choir with the children always singing around the piano and even entering competitions in their hand made sailor suits. One of Molly’s dearest wishes was that her family sing a complex requiem at her funeral, but is that wish for harmony enough to overcome the disharmony amongst the siblings?

Cathy (Heather Bolton) and her family has been crippled financially in the Manawatu floods but soldier on, Kev (Jeff Kingsford-Brown) has a secret that has turned him from the man he could have been, Jean (Carmel McGlone) is the spinster eldest daughter who has given up her life to care for her mother, Terri (Lyndee-Jane Rutherford) is the cheeky, light-hearted and very pregnant youngest child while Noel has poured his heart into music and is the one who doggedly tries to shape the family into a choir.

Two more voices are needed to really make it work – Milly’s delightfully eccentric sister Nola (Kate Harcourt) and the eldest grandson Matt (Jamie McCaskill). All the performers are brilliant and a pleasure to watch, under Cathy Downes’ assured direction. You won’t forget the polyester-dress-clad girls singing Mr Inbetween in a hurry.

The musical numbers come thick and fast, especially in the second half and while hugely entertaining, it put the music/drama ratio out of kilter. We needed to get to know the family, with Matt in particular disappointingly under-written as a character.

One of the most moving moments is very brief, when Matt, who’s Mâori, comes in to find his Nana alone in her casket in the lounge; Martyn Robert’s beautifully lit funeral sequence of the family walking and singing, is another one.


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Getting to the heart

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 27th Mar 2006

Of the many memorable lines from Mum’s Choir by Alison Quigan – "singing is an expression of the soul" – is the one that probably best sums up this exceptionally well written play of a family reunited following the death of their mother through the songs they used to sing.  It’s not a musical but a play full of warmth and honesty, typically kiwi, about what goes on after the key essential of any family – mum – passes on. 

Singing was mum’s passion in life.  She sang everywhere, in the bath, the garden, the kitchen, and made the five kids sing at every opportunity while they were growing up.  And so it wasn’t surprising that her dying wish was for them to come together one last time and sing a piece from the Requiem at her funeral.  So through the tears of remorse and laughter of reminisces we see mum’s five siblings prepare, along with her sister and eldest grandson, not only the food and flowers, but their musical tribute.

And its hard to imagine a more suitable cast than the one new Downstage director Cathy Downs has assembled for her Wellington directorial debut to fulfil the demands of this play.  Not only are they all consummate actors but all are exceptional musicians, most getting to play the piano and singing solo as well as being part of mum’s choir.  However it’s not only the solemnity of Fauré’s Requiem that we get but some high spirited song and dance routines along the way, expertly put together by Musical director Patrick Laughton and Choreographer Lyn Pringle.  Through these musical interludes the family recalls, not only with great humour but also with bitter rancour, the high’s and lows of mum and her music.

There are the two eldest children Jean (Carmel McGlone) and Noel (David McKenzie), both unmarried, who act as peace makers holding the group together with Noel acting as Choir Master. Then there’s Cathy (Heather Bolton) who’s struggling with the fact that her son Matt (Jamie McCaskill) won’t be there only to find that he turns up unexpectedly.  Kev from Australia (Jeff Kingsford-Smith) is the enfant-terrible upsetting the family equilibrium while pregnant Terri (Lyndee-Jane Rutherford) provides much of the humour to break up the tension.  Into this mix is Aunty Nola (Kate Harcourt) mum’s sister who has come to not only help out but help herself to mum’s things.

Each actor gives an exceptional performance in this production, getting to the heart of both their character and the play.  Confident and committed, they not only work extremely well as a team but live each moment like it’s their own making the play real and believable and hugely entertaining.


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Works a treat

Review by John Smythe 26th Mar 2006

It is a pleasure to thoroughly revise my opinion of Mum’s Choir by Alison Quigan.

The premise is that five adult children have returned home for their widowed mother’s last days and now have to prepare for her funeral, along with an aunty and grandson. Because "Mum’s life was one big song" and she taught her kids to sing in parts and got them performing in competitions from an early age, the family drama is interpolated with music and songs across the spectrum from classical to popular.

I didn’t see its Centrepoint (Palmerston North) premiere in 2004, directed by Quigan who also played the role of Cathy, but I did see last year’s Court Theatre (Christchurch) production, directed by Ross Gumbley. My judgement then (September 2005) was that it fell flat because the well-defined characters went nowhere, the showbiz elements undermined any sense of authenticity, a home movie of Mum’s last birthday deposed what should have been the dramatic climax, and all pretence that it was a play disappeared with the final post-funeral scene when it simply dissolved into a straight-to-audience concert of old-favourites.

Not so with this Downstage production, directed by Catherine Downes. This time the core emotions stirred by Mum’s death anchor the drama, the comedy arises naturally and each song or musical sequence earns its keep by addressing, expressing and/or resolving those core emotions and the conflicts they generate.

This production fulfils what I now understand to have been the original vision Quigan developed with musical director Laughton Pattrick, whose ability to bring the best out of actor/singers as individuals and ensembles no matter what the musical genre, is legendary. That said, I still think the play would be improved if all the work put into giving each sibling a strong back-story was paid off by confronting and resolving a present problem that would impact everyone’s future, like what to do with the family home (which presumably they now co-own).

What does give the present action dramatic shape is the question of whether they will sing Fauré’s Requiem at the funeral, as rashly promised to their fast-fading Mum by older bachelor brother Noel (David McKenzie, who has played the role in all three productions). Heavily pregnant Terri (Lyndee-Jane Rutherford; delightfully stroppy yet mostly carefree) is furious: Mum bossed them into singing all their lives and even though she’s dead "she’s still bossing us around!"

The others claim to be out of practice, especially younger brother Kev, now making a go of his business in Queensland yet still the put-upon runt back home (played as an awkwardly blokey misfit by Jeff Kingsford-Brown). Even when they agree to sing it, there’s still the question of whether they’ll be up to it, even if an increasingly frustrated Noel can get them to rehearse enough. The strong alto voice of flood-ravaged farmer Cathy (beautifully realised by Heather Bolton) is reassuring but there is till a lot of work to do …

Meanwhile it is the spinster sister Jean (Carmel McGlone at her delicious best), whose life has been somewhat on hold during Mum’s illnesses, who makes the lists to keep the funeral arrangements on track, wrestles with the eulogy and reveals some hidden depths. Deaf Aunty Nola from Taihape (Kate Harcourt in her element), Mum’s almost identical sister, helps, hinders and luxuriates in the pragmatic pleasure of inheriting Mum’s electronically controlled lift chair. The younger generation is represented by Cathy’s son Matt (Jamie McCaskill: strong, relaxed and capable), a Solomons-stationed army cook who turns up unexpectedly.

The quality of Downes’ direction, and the whole cast’s alignment to a shared purpose, is exemplified in the intensely felt moment when Cathy claps eyes on him. Their Don’t Get Around Much Any More duet – added for this season – speaks volumes about this mother-son relationship.

Likewise there is eloquence in the other songs that pepper the play. That’s Amoré allows the brothers to reconnect with their long-gone Dad. An hilarious geriatric Andrews Sisters routine, blending Accentuate the Positive and Jeepers Creepers brings the sisters into perfect harmony, reinforced later by Java Jive (the Inkspots’ ode to coffee and tea) and In The Mood. Even everyone having a go at The Good Ship Lollipop, which normally I cannot abide, has dramatic value in exorcising the ghosts of competitions past. On the side, a contest to cook the Yorkshire puddings for the Sunday roast gives expression to classic sibling rivalry and territorialism.

The final rehearsal of Requiem, the tail end of Jean’s eulogy and Matt’s solo of E Hine E, picked up by the ensemble as the processional, are truly moving. So much so that the final sing-along back at the house – You Made Me Love You, Heart Of My Heart, Haere Mai, Hey Look Me Over, We’ll Meet Again, Auf Wiedersehen (where was Now Is The Hour?) – works dramatically as an affirmation of the gift Mum gave them and as an energiser for the futures they face without her.

For some reason Ross Joblin’s wide box set is adorned with patterned wallpaper the colour of flypaper coils, peeling at the top, and its black scrim-panelled doors open into blackness. While this allows for the eulogy and processional to be played out above and behind, it detracts from the authenticity of the substantive play. More appropriately, Martyn Roberts’ lighting segues subtly from realistic to stylised for the musical segments and Lyne Pringle’s choreography emerges very naturally from the action. The costumes, designed by Zoe Fox, also support the story’s reality.

Having feared Mum’s Choir would prove a poor choice to inaugurate Catherine Downes as the new director of Downstage, I am delighted to discover it works a treat.

On opening night the quiet prelude, where Mum (Kate Harcourt) plays her piano to an ominous heartbeat, was marred by the sounds of a rowdy celebration at the Tasting Room two floors below. Then, as the coffin was taken from the house in what was supposed to be silence, the entirely predictable boy racers of Kent and Cambridge Terraces wrecked the ambience. This is why Downstage will not be staging Gary Henderson’s Peninsula, which premiered last year at the Court to huge acclaim. And this is why the sound-proofing of the auditorium must become an urgent priority for the Hannah Playhouse Trust.


Steven Ray March 31st, 2006

Hi John, very pleased to read your review - I'll have a chance to see it on return to Wellington. I'm in Dunedin at The Fortune in Geri Brophy's new play, The Paradise Package. It's terrific and a pity you aren't around to see it. I haven't been in a play for a long time that's elicited such a positive audience response; it really is something and I hope other theatres will pick it up! Very pleased to see your site working so well.

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