The Court Theatre is celebrating New Zealand Theatre Month this September with a play full of music, laughter and, of course, a gloriously typical Kiwi family in Mum’s Choir.
Mum’s Choir follows the O’Reilly family reuniting in Palmerston North after the death of their mum, Molly. She hasn’t gone quietly, however, with her final request an almost impossible task: for her kids (now adults with children of their own) to sing Fauré’s Requiem at her funeral.
For Ross Gumbley, the Artistic Director at The Court and director of Mum’s Choir, the play is about “the power of family when we all come together. It’s brilliant because the galvanizing force in the O’Reilly family is a love of music and song. Their whanau takes so much strength in being able to come together and pay tribute to their mother through her final request, for her family to sing Fauré’s Requiem.”
Gumbley and writer Alison Quigan worked together at Centrepoint Theatre in Palmerston North when Quigan was the Artistic Director – and where Mum’s Choir was written and first performed.
“This is, I think, Alison Quigan’s finest play. And that’s hard for me to say, because I wrote seven with her... But it’s her best because it’s her most personal.”
Mum’s Choir was based on Quigan’s experience when her own mother died in 2001. Now based in Auckland, she continues to write alongside her role as the Performing Arts Manager of the Mangere Arts Centre and is thrilled Mum’s Choir is featuring in New Zealand Theatre Month.
“It’s a great chance to have the conversation about why we do theatre. Who is it for? How is it different from televison and film? Can we truly be an asset to our community, tell our stories and celebrate our lifestyle if we are simply regurgitating someone else’s culture?”
A huge part of Mum’s Choir is the music, with songs performed during the play including After You’ve Gone, That’s Amore, Accentuate the Positive, Every Time We Say Goodbye, Hine E Hine, We’ll Meet Again and, of course, the glorious Requiem by Fauré.
“The play takes place in a family that, for years since they’ve all been small, have sat around the piano. Singing is a must in this family. So, there are all those standard songs that mum would have in her piano stall when you lift that up – all those loved classics of sheet music,” Gumbley says.
The choice of music came to Quigan when visiting arranger Laughton Pattrick and seeing the sheet music he had collected over the years.
“When I was researching the play, I visited Laughton Pattrick at his house in Wellington. The room was dominated by a grand piano which he had brought out from England after his OE in the ‘70s. On the piano was strewn sheet music and every thought he had was accompanied by him scrambling for music sheets and then playing it with great enthusiasm. We decided the music the O’Reillys wanted to sing was what their parents would have played throughout their lives,” Quigan says.
The cast performing those loved classics includes Eilish Moran as eldest daughter Jean, following her most recent performance as Annie in In the Next Room, or the vibrator play; Paul Barrett as brother Noel, returning to The Court to play the family pianist, with Lynda Milligan joining them as Aunty Nola, most recently seen at The Court in Roger Hall’s Easy Money. Nick Dunbar and Amy Straker will also be returning to The Court after performances in The Biggest and In the Next Room, or the vibrator play respectively to play youngest siblings Kevin and Terri, with Julie Edwards making her Court Theatre debut as older sister Cathy. Wiremu Waretini completes the cast, returning to The Court after his role in 2016’s Wairoa to play Cathy’s son, Matt.
For Gumbley, Mum’s Choir is a timeless New Zealand play that, 14 years on, is still just as relevant and powerful as it was when it was first written, telling the story of a family coming together in celebration.
“Mum’s Choir is a play which reaches out and touches your heart. It really is a symbol of where New Zealand plays have come from – and how good they are.”