‘It is a play with a really big heart. Much like its author, a person who really believed in community,’ William McInnes says about The Heartbreak Choir. Attached to the project since 2019, McInnes has been able to spend a lot of time with Aidan Fennessy’s final script and consider its messages. ‘It’s a play about people that have all been through something. They are all in a state of flux, some in more obvious ways than others.’
Set in a small, rural town that is populated with a diverse demographic, including retirees, commuters, refugees and artists, The Heartbreak Choir tracks the journey of a small group of locals who form a new choir after splitting from their original choir. Over a seven week period they each grapple with events that caused the split and a divisiveness in the town. ‘They don’t necessarily solve these issues,’ McInnes explains, ‘but they come to terms with them. And they do that by cutting each other a bit of slack and finding solace in music.’
McInnes plays Peter, a police officer who was born and raised in the town. A towering figure, McInnes definitely looks the part of an imposing officer, but he is certainly more open and warm than his character. ‘I think he does a good job at masking things,’ McInnes says when describing Peter. ‘He was married to Caro, who was a very important part of the [original] choir and a beloved member of the community. But their marriage wasn’t great. He’s a good bloke, but he was a lousy husband who didn’t deal with intimacy very well and would shut it all out.’ Now that his wife is gone and he is raising a teenage boy alone, Peter starts to consider what parts of himself he is going to change. ‘He is trying to determine where he fits in to this new part of his life without his wife, and that means he has to confront things.’
William McInnes with Julian Weeks in The Heartbreak Choir. Photo: Jeff Busby
Which is how Peter finds himself turning up to the CFA hall where the new choir are rehearsing. ‘The choir was one place where his wife was very happy and now that she’s gone he’s got this naive idea that by going there, he’ll be closer to her and able to understand her a little bit.’ Peter does come to understand his wife a little better by joining the choir and surrounding himself with Caro’s closest friends, but it’s also the very act of singing that guides him through his state of flux.
Disparate sounds coming together
According to McInnes, the songs the choir sing are ‘on one level, just songs, just bits of music. But on another level they are songs of healing and togetherness and anger and anguish, all of those emotions. It’s a way of expressing grief and loss.’ Something that Peter struggles to do in everyday life. ‘When you sing with other people,’ McInnes goes on, ‘it’s like you create another being in a way.’ He chuckles as he says this, ‘I mean, that’s corny and a bit fluffy, but it’s true. When you share your voice with people, it's an intoxicant.’ And in terms of how the choir functions within the play, he says it is almost like an extra character. ‘The songs are like the soundtrack to the play, the inner thoughts and drama of all the characters,’ McInnes reflects.
William McInnes with Emily Milledge, Louise Siversen, Ratidzo Mambo, Carita Farrer Spencer and Maude Davey in The Heartbreak Choir. Photo: Jeff Busby
And how does McInnes himself feel about singing? He laughs, ‘I’m sort of hit and miss. I’ve got an Irish baritone that drifts in and out. My best work is done in the shower.’ Luckily, though, he and the entire cast are in capable hands with Musical Director Vicky Jacobs. ‘Vicky is great at corralling people and getting us all on track. She’s really great at getting a group of disparate people to join together and make a sound, which is what the play is all about.’
For McInnes, the play is also about honouring Fennessy. ‘Aidan was a great contributor to MTC and to theatre and society, and we are all excited to come together and do the best interpretation of his work possible.’ Fennessy wrote an entertaining, funny and heartfelt play and McInnes hopes that everyone will recognise themselves in some of the characters. ‘I want people to see bits and pieces of themselves and be taken on a story of a group of people who are trying to live life. And that can sometimes be heartbreaking, but it can be incredibly funny and it can be very moving.’
The Heartbreak Choir is on stage until 28 May at Southbank Theatre.
Published on 6 May 2022