A new show written especially for Christie Whelan Browne returns after a hit season at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

Steve Vizard has long been a big fan of Christie Whelan Browne. “I can’t think of anything I’ve seen her in where she wasn’t a star,” he says, rattling off a list of her credits including The Importance of Being Earnest for Melbourne Theatre, and musicals such as The Drowsy Chaperone (also for MTC) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, all with Geoffrey Rush.

Christie Whelan Browne. Photograph: supplied

Now, in collaboration with pianist/composer Joe Chindamo, Vizard has written a solo show to showcase Whelan Browne’s considerable versatility as a performer. Entitled Vigil, it was commissioned by the Adelaide Cabaret Festival with support from Arts Centre Melbourne, and premiered recently at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival to rave reviews, with Limelight giving it four-and-half stars. In July, it will have a short season at Arts Centre Melbourne.

A solo play with songs, Vigil centres on Liz, a 30-something prodigal daughter who returns home on Christmas Eve to find her mother on her deathbed. Talented, shameless, beautiful and needy, Liz is a seemingly superficial yet complex person. Over the course of the show we learn why she is the way she is. Directed by Andy Packer, Chindamo accompanies Whelan Browne on piano, together with violinist Zoë Black and cellist Molly Kadarauc, while Andy Packer directs.

It all goes back to last year’s opening night of Banquet of Secrets, a chamber opera about four longtime friends meeting up for their annual get-together dinner. which Vizard wrote with composer Paul Grabowsky for Victorian Opera and Arts Centre Melbourne.

“Eddie [Perfect, co-Artistic Director of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival] came and saw it and loved it. We had a drink afterwards and he basically said he’d love to programme it for Adelaide,” says Vizard, award-winning writer, television presenter, comedian, producer and lawyer.

However, with several of the artists committed to other things, Banquet of Secrets turned out not to be logistically possible for this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival, so instead Perfect asked Vizard if he’d like to write something new.

“By chance Eddie was also talking to a great mutual friend, Joe Chindamo, who’s a stupendous jazz musician and who is also doing some great classical work. I’ve known Joe forever and he rang me up and said: ‘Eddie wants me to do something for Adelaide. I know you write librettos and I’d love to work with you, what do you want to do?’” recalls Vizard.

At the time, Vizard was shooting The Wrong Girl, starring Jessica Marais, in which he plays her father. Waiting around on set, he got chatting to Whelan Browne (who plays TV producer Nikkii Steadman in the series) and confessed his profound admiration for her work.

“I was saying to her, ‘you can do comedy with your eyes shut, it’s such a gift. And you sing like a bird. And I think you could do great dramatic performances as well.’ And she said, ‘I just wish there was a vehicle where I could do comedy and drama’. I said, ‘well you wouldn’t read about it but I’ve just been talking to Joe Chindamo about writing something. Can I come back to you in about a week?’” recalls Vizard.

“My mother was dying at that time so I was spending a fair bit of time at one of those retirement villages. In the same building, they’ve got a part where they put people into hospice care. I was looking at all the people in there and I was watching people say goodbye to their parents. Joe Chindamo, by pure chance, had lost his Dad not long before so I suggested a simple idea called Vigil, which was basically a 30-something girl coming to visit her mother in a retirement village.”

“She’s a will-o’-the-wisp daughter who’s been around the world and hasn’t spent that much time at home and her mother isn’t as she remembered. The whole thing is set in real time over one night. It’s essentially a one-woman play. I’ve written [lyrics for] 12 original songs and Joe has written the most beautiful melodies and underscored it all. It sounds a bit bleak but it’s highly comedic as well,” says Vizard.

“I think it will resonate with anyone who has ever spent time with their aging parents. There are all the things you are trying to remember and the things you wish you’d said. So, the show is a mix of all that minutiae which people talk about – pruning the wisteria, whinging about your siblings – through to the big picture stuff.”

Whelan Browne – whose cabaret credits include the searingly funny yet profoundly human, surprisingly compassionate show Britney Spears: The Cabaret, written for her and directed by Dean Bryant – says that Vizard has written “a really great script”.

“The character isn’t close to me at all but the show does go through all the gamut of things that you want as an actor I suppose. It’s just Liz the whole time but she does quite a few impressions [of other people] along the way.

“It’s basically a look into the mother-daughter relationship and how it’s not always easy. Because her mum is no longer conscious, it’s a one-way conversation that [Liz] is having with her mum about all the stuff that’s happened, going back to her childhood. It’s not all wrapped up in a lovely bow. It’s hard for me because I have a completely different relationship with my mum. I would never say or do the things that Liz does to her mother, but I’m really aware that it’s probably very relatable for a lot of women – or anyone when you are about to lose a parent. Anyone who has been in that situation will be able to relate to it, and for those who haven’t it’s an insight into what it’s like.”

Vizard says that he chose to set it on Christmas Eve because “Christmas is so redolent with the idea of home and family and belonging and coming together and so as a time I think it’s important. I’m one of five so I think of all my Christmases and they all merge into one giant opening of presents and pulling of bonbons and paper hats.

“It also represents a reason for her to come home. And then there’s the music that goes with Christmas. But it’s not a Christmas story per se, it’s just a story that happens on Christmas eve. But it could have happened on any other day.”

As for the music, Whelan Browne says that a lot of the songs are “very heartfelt and moving. But we knew that we couldn’t just have a show of ballads, so they have managed to slip in a couple of funny songs and different journey songs, which is really great because it breaks up the show. It’s not just a tear fest, there’s a lot of humour in there.”

Not surprisingly, Vizard describes it as “a very personal piece”, drawing on his own experience of losing his mother. Both of Whelan Browne’s parents are still alive – in fact, her mother is briefly featured in the production.

“One of the main props and motifs is a photo board with 37 photographs on it,” says Vizard. “One of the songs is called 37 Photographs and a lot of the anecdotes and stories and inspiration and flashbacks in the piece derive from the photos on that board. It’s not just set now, it moves backwards and forwards in time a fair bit.”

“On this photo board we have photos of Christie’s mother and family, and at one stage when Liz rings up and hears her mother’s voice on the answer machine, we’ve used Christie’s mother’s voice.”

At one point, Vizard even asked if her mother might want to lie in the bed on stage as Liz’s mother, reveals Whelan Browne.

“When I asked her, it was the most exciting prospect. Mum has just retired and she thought maybe she was going to start a new career on the stage but she couldn’t commit to the dates because they are busy travelling around. Instead she is going to do the voice on the answer machine. She is very excited about it – but she knows nothing about the show. So, for me, it will be hard to hear that voice. I think Steve thinks it will be something of an emotional trigger for me but actually the show is trigger enough.”

Vigil plays at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, July 4 – 8