Among the usual plethora of offerings at this year’s Adelaide Fringe comes a true diamond in the rough. As someone who is perpetually seeking the birth of meaningful, original and apposite new works, Erin and Duncan McKellar’s A Box of Memories is an intimate and artistic piece of original musical theatre and a wise ticket choice for any Fringe dweller with a desirous nature to explore the more laudable listings of the Fringe program.
The father-daughter team have succeeded elegantly, creating a book and score of a subject close to their hearts, having journeyed through the heartbreaking stages and challenges of caring for and eventually losing their mother-grandmother due to an early onset of dementia. Dementia remains the second leading cause of death in our country and the leading cause of death for Australian women.
Having collaborated with the composers, lyricists and librettists of several Broadway shows myself, I can attest that the McKellar’s creation is no easy feat. For many, dementia is a subject already difficult to talk about, let alone to write and sing about. The duo has checked off so many boxes of their own, successfully navigating the structure of musical theatre while artfully managing the balancing act between creative storytelling and entertainment. The couple are well-armed; Duncan works professionally as a lead psychiatrist caring for those living with dementia and Erin is a schooled and skilled musician and songwriter.
A Box of Memories tells the story from diagnosis to passing of dementia patient Lizzie (Kathie Renner), her doctor Jeremy (Mat Noble) and the difficult journey of Lizzie’s daughter Sonia (Lauren Henderson). Skilfully accompanied by pianist David Goodwin, the quartet just happen to be four of Adelaide’s best and most seasoned performing artists and the fab four do not fail to bring this challenging musical the success it deserves.
The storyline offers an insight into how dementia not only affects the patient, but also those around them and those caring for them while offering a glimpse of the degenerative stages of the disease. The musical is well balanced and while oftentimes tugging on the heartstrings, musical numbers such as I Need A GNT lighten the mood, a musical highlight which demonstrates Sonia’s need to let loose at the thought of a gin and tonic in order to cope with her stress of her mother’s illness. In contrast, the song Just Three Words stands out as a beautiful, clever and haunting first sign of Lizzie’s dementia during her first doctor’s appointment.
Noble plays the role as Lizzie and Sonia’s doctor, learning his own lessons through the challenges Sonia continues to face. The vocal score for Noble appears more challenging to that of his leading ladies, yet he handles the dynamic and vocal range of his parts with ease, executing delicate ballads and belting bigger numbers like Vitamin H, further proving there isn’t much he can’t do.
Renner plays the role of Lizzie with poise and dignity. A respected and long-serving vocalist on the Australian music scene, Renner’s experience shines through tastefully in a role I’m certain has never been realized before. In the reprise of Silver Memories & Golden Moments (an earlier song featuring both female characters), Renner is later seen humming in the reprise alongside Henderson’s singing of the lyrics, a masterful decision by the McKellar’s that indicates Lizzie’s inability to speak.
The role of Sonia is by far the bigger role of the three and Henderson is outstanding as Sonia. Henderson’s skills and merit as a vocalist have always been known to me but having now seen her in an acting role, an even greater respect continues to develop beyond the admirable and previously established impression I have had for Henderson and her work. The trio are known mostly for their work as vocalists and all three deliver beautiful performances. However, it is clear that Henderson’s acting abilities shine through more distinctly, elevating A Box of Memories from not just a musical but to musical “theatre”.
But the true stars of the show are the McKellars themselves. They have earned my respect for not only attempting to write such a challenging and confronting piece of musical theatre, but for taking on such a difficult and distressing subject, in turn, conquering their goal in an artistic, creative and tasteful manner.
A Box of Memories is a real gem and has potential to become a substantially larger piece of musical theatre for wider audiences if the McKellars choose to do so. A few of the songs require some reworking as does some of the spoken text, but all in all the McKellars have more than succeeded in bringing their story to the awareness of others in a genre generally not reserved for such subjects. A Box of Memories may well be one of the best offerings at this year’s Fringe and it comes as no surprise that an extra show has been added on Wednesday March 2. May there be many more.
Adelaide Fringe Review By Kym Purling