Christmas carols, crooning about snow, sleigh bells and happy families, are piped into the auditorium. The lights come up on a bed, facing the back of the stage, but clearly occupied by a body. A young woman in high heels struggles on stage, encumbered by a wheeled suitcase. So begins Vigil, a one-woman musical that plays out the conflicts and love between daughter and mother, as Liz keeps vigil at her dying mum’s bedside.
It sounds gloomy, but there is as much comedy as tragedy during Liz’s vigil, giving the versatile actor and singer Christie Whelan Browne a chance to shine. Whelan Browne last performed at the Arts Centre, with comedic brilliance, in Born Yesterday earlier this year. She has acted with Geoffrey Rush in several stage productions, and starred in many musicals. We are in good hands.
Vigil was commissioned by the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and first performed there in June. Steve Vizard wrote the script and the song lyrics, after watching his mother die in an aged care facility. Out of this experience, he combined with composer and pianist Joe Chindamo to create a work to showcase Whelan Browne’s many talents. Chindamo, with Zoe Black on violin and Molly Kadarauch on cello, accompany the performance onstage.
Liz has breezed in from an overseas trip as a professional talent scout to visit her mother, after a long absence. In an 80-minute monologue addressed to the silent and possibly unconscious mother, Liz shares childhood memories and her disappointment at being the less-loved daughter, the one who failed to please, whose dubious comfort is remembering her mother’s appraisal: a ‘pretty little thing’. Vizard’s writing strikes a contemporary note and captures the cruelty of family dynamics, while Whelan Browne’s intimate portrayal of a thirty-something Australian woman filled with ambition, hedonism and emotional baggage is both poignant and hilariously familiar.
Punctuating the script are twelve musical numbers. Chindamo‘s music ranges wildly in tempo and style, and echoes the vocal phrasing with subtle jazz touches. Whelan Browne segues deftly between monologue, soaring ballads, jazzy numbers and the bluesy ‘BBQ of Love’, where the actor peaks in her vivid impersonations of the booze-fuelled aunts and uncles of her childhood. Wild and brattish, the perfect unrepentant daughter.
Generated by such a wealth of creative talent, it is strange that there are flat moments in Vigil. Perhaps the angst is too familiar, the characters too suburban, and we need relief from the realism. Maybe more flights of fancy. More dramatic lighting. More scenes that bring childhood memories to life and give free rein to Whelan Browne‘s comic genius. Or maybe I’ve watched too many Dennis Potter dramas.
Vigil is a strange genre-defying beast, and its short run at the Arts Centre will give Melbourne audiences a chance to see a unique show and watch a star on the rise.
Arts Centre Melbourne presents
by Steve Vizard
Director Andy Packer
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio
Dates: 4 – 8 July 2017
Times: Tues-Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm.
Bookings: artscentremelbourne.com.au | 1300 182 183
Commissioned by Adelaide Cabaret Festival