Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 2 March, 2011

To British ears, it sounds implausible and even a little absurd: a play based on the true story of an Aboriginal Australian soul group’s 1969 tour of Vietnam. However, our lack of combat involvement in that war detaches us from it as an episode of history, whereas Australia provided the third largest foreign troop contingent after the U.S. and South Korea. This was also a watershed period in Aboriginal history: it was only two years earlier that they had been granted full civil rights within Australia. Black American troops in Vietnam were helping to modernise the racial perceptions in their homeland, but the position of black Australians was perhaps more sensitive still. There is, then, much of resonance in Tony Briggs’ play, not least for him: the real-life Sapphires were his mother, her sister and two of their cousins.
But the resonance is specifically Australian. Move Belvoir & Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production halfway round the world and, bereft of social and historical underpinning, all we see is a story with a number of simplistic elements. The youngest of the quartet, Julie, reveals that she is pregnant; Cynthia is confronted by her ex Jimmy, who abandoned her some way before the altar and is now serving in Vietnam; Kay gets involved with an American pilot; hardest-edged Sapphire Gail gradually falls for their incompetent but good-hearted white manager Dave; they befriend a teenage Vietnamese hustler in search of the rural family he has been supporting from his city activities. Gunfire, logistical nightmares and the “two days away from retirement” cliché are all present and correct… as well, of course, as the music.
That side of matters is solid, in the best sense. As Cynthia, Casey Donovan makes full use of both her near-Aretha voice and her beyond-Aretha upholstery; Megan Sarmardin and Ngaire Pigram as Julie and Kay are sweeter but scarcely less powerful. Peter Farnan’s (all-white) backing band features some sterling electric piano work from Simon Burke on numbers such as “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” and the Gladys Knight-style arrangement of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”. Nevertheless, despite Cynthia’s frequent exhortations to “shake your moom”, the lack of dramatic or background-historical engagement left my moom in its seat, unshaken.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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