|Lorinda May Merrypor, Ngaire Pigram, Matilda Brown and Mindy Kwanten as The Sapphires|
Written and directed by Tony Briggs.Associate director. Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn)Musical Director. Nathaniel Andrew. Set and Lighting designer Mark Howett. Choreographer. Leonard Mickelo. Costume Stylist. Sophie Woodward assisted by Jacinta Keefe. Christine Harris and HIT Productions. The Q Theatre. Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. February 13 -18 2019
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
For many years now, HIT Productions has successfully toured a number of intimate first class productions to The Q Theatre. Generally they have been two-handers or small cast plays with recognized professional actors and their creative team. With their current production, playing at The Q, Hit Productions have staged a touring production of Tony Briggs’s The Sapphires, the enormously popular play about the four aboriginal sisters, who took the Australian music world by storm and were billed as Australia’s very own Supremes. The Sapphires is their story, emerging from a small NSW country town to win a local competition, be discovered by a small town manager and travel to Vietnam to entertain the troops. Many will remember the hugely successful film, written by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs and directed by Wayne Blair. The stage show is a close adaptation of the film, written and directed by Tony Briggs with a different cast in the roles of the McRae sisters, Gail (Ngaire Pigram), Cynthia (Mindy Kwanten), Kay (Matilda Brown) and Julie (Lorinda May Merrypor).
In spite of a professional cast and musicians Mitchell Kwanten, Joel McIntyre and Jack Hickey under the musical direction of Nathaniel Andrew, the stage production falls far short of the film for a number of reasons. Generally speaking writers may not be the best people to direct their own work. Briggs’s script comprises short scenes that work well on screen with fluid segues from one moment to another. In Briggs’s stage production, the continuity and emotional impact labour under clumsy and unnecessary scene changes and brown-outs. As a result, the audience loses the tension and performers are compelled to crank up their energy to once again draw the audience into another scene that ends too soon with another brown-out and scene change. Combine this with poor amplification and a view into the wings from the first couple of rows and the production becomes a lesson in distraction. It suffers insufficient rehearsal in a new space, and the company relies on energy and pace within the scenes and excessive shouting from Calen Tassone, doubling as the Emcee and Cynthia’s love interest, Jimmy.
The production is not without its moments. The cast sing well and capture the individual essence of each character, and Leonard Mikelo’s choreography is appropriate to the period and the pop/Aussie Motown style. They would have had far greater Wow factor if they had worn radio mikes. There are moments of comedy, in the cunning survival tactics of scene stealing Aljin Abella as the Vietnamese youth, Joe (Tran Van Hai) and Jimmy’s clumsy pleas for forgiveness. There is pathos in Julie’s private dilemma, irony in the conflicting relationship between Gail and the group’s bumbling manager Dave ( an assured and engaging performance by Mike Smith) and intense drama in the frightening sound of combat and Joe’s discovery of his ruined home.
Unfortunately, the complexities of scene changes, involving moving a large truck on set, the short scenes and the interminable brown-outs, partially covered by the band, but leaving scenes hanging, leave an audience suspended awkwardly in the uneasy realm of disbelief. The capacity audience left the theatre, entertained by the uplifting story of The Sapphires, impressed by the individual performances, but without the fire in the heart that a live stage production of The Sapphires’ story can kindle. The title alone and the story that it tells will be enough to bring the audiences in, but I left feeling that stronger direction would have paid far greater homage to four remarkable indigenous women and their visionary manager.