Auckland Theatre Company’s 2023 season opener is crisp, confident – and not quite the show you might expect from the poster, writes Sam Brooks.
By the looks of The Heartbreak Choir’s poster, you might expect a broad comedy good for a few laughs and half a conversation in the car ride home, if you’re lucky. Thankfully, that’s not quite the show that Auckland Theatre Company is opening its 2023 season with.
Written by Australian theatre stalwart Aidan Hennessy, The Heartbreak Choir follows the travails of a small choir (they insist it’s not a community choir, but it is absolutely a community choir) after splintering from a larger group due to an ethical quandary. While it starts off broad, with more than a few fart jokes in the first half, the show is gradually revealed to be a surprisingly deep work about community, and the intimate relationships that form between people who belong to it. If it plays broad, that’s because it’s trying to access a wider canvas.
A show like The Heartbreak Choir lives or dies by its cast. If the audience doesn’t fall in love with the choir, they don’t fall in love with the play. Thankfully, Heartbreak Choir has a cast ready to sell every laugh line, sit in every awkward moment, and hit every note in every song for all it’s worth.
Alison Quigan, as choir leader Barbara, is as good as she’s ever been; she not only manages to turn a few extended onstage solos into comedic arias, but also sit in the headspace of a woman who has been designated as community leader but doesn’t really want to be. Kate Louise Elliot delights as Mack, a role written to be played to the back row of the theatre across the street. Elliot lends her gravity and texture, while David Fane’s Peter generates laughs the moment he walks onstage, unable or unwilling to open the door to the choir hall – which makes the character’s dramatic turn later in the play all the more affecting.
It’s newcomer Munashe Tapfuya as Anesu who is the absolute standout, however. Anesu, a pregnant doctor from Zimbabwe forced by circumstance to make sandwiches at the local deli, is a conundrum of a character. It often feels like writer Aidan Fennessy has constructed her from stereotypes and cliches, but Tapfuya breezes past the clunky writing with a lively, vivid and real performance. When the play hands her the mildly ludicrous act one cliffhanger to deliver, she hits it out of the park.
It goes without saying that everybody in the cast can hold a tune (especially Esmay August as the otherwise near-mute Savannah), but it’s worth commending the ensemble, and director Lara Macgregor, for making sure that each song shows us who the characters are; where they stand in the social hierarchy, and how comfortable they are in the choir. When the script leans on the music to provide depth and texture, the production provides both in spades.
This sort of crowd-pleasing theatre isn’t necessarily cool, and it’s definitely not groundbreaking, but it’s the ideal opener for ATC’s 2023 season. It’s a clean, confident production of a well-tuned script, with a team that’s more than equipped to carry it over the line.
A cast and a tight production can only take you so far, and while Fennessy’s script is impressively slick at managing the to-and-fro of its ensemble, it does start to creak by the end. It’s never outright bad, or even boring, but in the last half hour of the play’s two-hours-plus it becomes easier to see the leaps in logic, and where the cast is working overtime to pad out some of the thinner writing.
It’s not the play on the poster. This kind of show would be extremely easy to mess up with a production that overplays the jokes, leans too hard on the songs, or wallows in the darkness. While it’s not quite perfect, ATC’s production knows the notes, hits them well, and reaps the rewards; it’s a loud show, and a quiet, confident success.
The Heartbreak Choir plays at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until March 4.