Based on the real life story of Briggs’s mother and aunt, The Sapphires tells the story of the four Aboriginal McCrae sisters who sing their way from Cummeragunga, New South Wales, to a war torn Vietnam where adventures come in the shape of American soldiers and not so appealing bombs.
Set in 1968, the choice of material from music – The Supremes, James Brown and Aretha Franklin are just a few of the legendary musicians whose work is included – to context to choose from is vast. Sexual liberation and the changing political landscape are hinted at, while issues of race are touched on and a final rendition of Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud cements the show’s message.
Discovered in a local bar by a more geek than chic manager Dave, the four wilful and argumentative sisters are promised fame, fortune and glamour. What follows is more unexpected as the tour is punctuated by an unwanted pregnancy, family secrets, love affairs, homesickness and tragedy.
Less of a jukebox musical and more of a play with songs, the girls serenade the audience with a host of familiar high-energy numbers fused with traditional Yorta Yorta folk songs that give the production an emotional, personal edge.
Casey Donovan as the larger-than-life, oversexed Cynthia steals the show with her powerful voice and addictive cheekiness. Oldest sister Gail, whose matronly personality means she misses out on most of the mischief, is played by a gravelly voiced Lisa Maza, while a sassy Ngaire Pigram plays Kay, whose natural dance ability means she shines during their group numbers. Megan Sarmardin as the youngest and most whiny sister Julie provides an equally and just as impressive natural ability to insult her sisters and get away with phrases underused on the London stage such as ‘boofhead’ and ‘flaming moron’.
With an onstage, five-piece band and enough glittery costume changes to keep each of the girl’s bouffants looking fresh, The Sapphires is an energetic romp that offers just a snapshot of the danger the experience must have entailed. But for all its attempts at heavy content, The Sapphires is ultimately light entertainment that serves to remind audiences just why Motown has never gone out of fashion. With the boys of Million Dollar Quartet in the West End, those desiring more of a feminine touch should look no further than the Barbican Theatre.