The Jade staged an ambitious and intriguing new Australian work by father-daughter creative team Erin McKellar and Duncan McKellar. Their small-scale one-act musical A Box of Memories aims to bring attention to a disease that currently affects “an estimated 487,500 Australians”. It accomplishes this and more through stirring music and lyrics that places an oft side-lined and delicate issue centre stage.
“Dementia is the second leading cause of death of Australians.” This gruelling statistic was uttered by Duncan McKellar, co-creator of A Box of Memories just before the closing night performance commenced to a full house of patrons. Dementia is not the typical subject matter for a music theatre work, but more contemporary musicals have dared to delve into the topic of mental illness, with hit musical Next to Normal being the closest comparison in terms of the show’s thematic material.
When learning of a musical inspired by dementia, one hopes that the creators approach their task from an informed, empathetic, and compassionate perspective. The creative duo behind this musical are fit to deliver such a work. Duncan McKellar is both a trained classical pianist and a geriatric psychiatrist, and Erin McKellar is currently studying a Doctorate of Musical Arts in Music Theatre Composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The duo explain in their programme notes that “this musical holds particular salience for us not only because Duncan works as a lead psychiatrist caring for those living with dementia, but also because his mother, Erin’s grandmother, lost her life to younger onset dementia.”
This particular performance of the musical presented more as a creative development showing. Props were limited with minimal lighting and blocking being the only markers of time and place. While the work could benefit from dramaturgical analysis and mentoring, it shines in its present state due to its memorable score delivered by some of Adelaide’s best musicians and singers.
The McKellars’ score was in the proficient hands of David Goodwin who performed keyboards and meticulously accompanied the actors, never missing a cue or segue, and adding his signature flair and groove to improvised moments. The music can be likened to that of greats such as Jason Robert Brown with interwoven gospel, jazz, and classical influences. Lauren Henderson played the role of Sonia. Her solos were particularly affecting as her flawless voice resonated with the audience who loved her comedic delivery of the song ‘GNT’. Mat Noble gave a suave performance in the role of Dr Jeremy and demonstrated vocal range that could rival John Farnham. Rounding out the trio of actor-singers was Kathie Renner whose depiction of Lizzy living with dementia was nuanced and moving. Renner and Henderson’s duet ‘Silver Memories and Golden Moments’ was a highlight.
As someone who has experienced the emotional turmoil of losing a loved one with dementia, I feel that this piece is a poignant yet celebratory work. It celebrates life and love. The humanity and connections linger long after experiencing the music. The storytelling will only strengthen through future creative development, and this writer feels honoured to have witnessed it in its infancy. Erin and Duncan McKellar are an exciting new duo in Aussie music theatre composition.
Reviewed on 2 March 2022.