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The Sapphires

Tony Briggs
Belvoir & Black Swan Theatre Company
Barbican Theatre
(2011)

The Sapphires production photo

The Sapphires is an Australian musical that features the music of Motown and is set mostly in Vietnam. This is all very multi-cultural, lots of appeal across the board, something for everyone. Yet this, in my opinion, is the inherent weakness in this otherwise strong and powerfully affecting musical story about the strength of sisterhood and identity of the Yorta Yorta Nation of the indigenous people of Australia.

What makes this evening so interesting, informative, humorous and enjoyable is the closeness of these girls and the knowledge and sense of self and belonging they have to their culture. The specific accent of Melbourne, the specific time setting of the Vietnam war, the specific race and race relations of these girls, their specific story (a gang of four sisters, proud of their Aboriginal roots, who form a soul group and tour Vietnam performing for the troops), these are the things that make the show special.

The broad humour, loud direction and heavy handed set, all designed, one supposes, to widen The Sapphires appeal, detract hugely from the story being told. And that is a pity because the story is really good. Each of the four girls has a well developed character and a journey, which are interesting in their own right, but it is their relationship with each other and how they pull together that is refreshing to see.

Lisa Maza plays the Mother Hen of the group: her natural stage presence and gravitas created by her calm assurance, considered delivery and serious dark voice belie her playful side that comes out with Lovelace Dave (Oliver Wenn), and her sensible demeanour make her switch to vocal diva even more of a pleasure to watch and listen to.

Casey Donovan, the star of Australian Idol, is also possessed of a good stage manner and a sense of fun that the audience respond to eagerly; and her solo pouring out her broken heart kept the (sadly) poorly attended auditorium spellbound.

Ngaire Pigram and Megan Samardin were also professional and lifted above the usual tag of 'the other sisters' by their exceptional musical talent and ability to belt out notoriously difficult Aretha Franklin numbers. They had slightly less time in terms of plot and Samardin's hair covered so much of her face that an element of her performance was lost but they both represented their characters well and put across sympathetically the respective plights of girls in their community who got pregnant at a young age.

As individuals, the girls are strong but as a group they are fantastic.

The sound levels are not always brilliant at the Barbican but it seemed a strange decision to set the volume on their microphones so loud that parts of their singing and inflexion were lost. The technical department also lit the stage almost universally in dark blue, very romantic and atmospheric, but making it quite difficult to make out facial expressions at times. The set was in turn ingenious and tiresome; the soldier hanging upside down flirting was showy and impressive but the opening scenes in a plain kitchen with a plastic table would have been more at home in an amateur production.

Tony Briggs had written, in his own words, ' a snapshot' of his mother's life. The talent, sass and attitude of the sisters was enough to draw us in and the adventures of their life in a jungle war zone in a foreign land enough to keep us engaged; the racial issues were always handled almost casually, the ambiance was light hearted entertainment.

Unexpectedly, tragedy hits (played beautifully and plaintively by Aljin Abella) and I, along with most of the audience, found myself in tears. Immediately, another tragedy hits, unrelated to any of the potential issues that might have escalated into problems, such as racial tension or underage pregnancy. A freak accident. Praying for it to be a dream and the characters to wake up, the girls come on and sing in the face of their loss and take a bow to a series of medleys and mash ups of popular soul tunes that they encourage the audience to get up and clap and dance and sing to.

The music was excellent, the storyline was engaging, the actors were involving and the writing was sensitive. The direction, by Neil Armfield, was on the whole competent, but scene changes that creaked and over-emphasis on punchlines distracted from the pace of the story and the tragic ending, followed cheek by jowl by a karaoke, was uncomfortable for this viewer at least.

"The Sapphires" is playing until 12th March 2011 at the Barbican Theatre

Reviewer: Lizzie Singh