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The Sapphires ... Christine Anu, Casey Donovan, Hollie Andrews and Kylie Farmer. Photo: Gary Marsh.

POSTED: 31 MAY 2010

The Sapphires, by Tony Briggs, directed by Wesley Enoch

Company B | The Seymour Centre, Chippendale, Sydney | Until 20 June

What a treat it was on opening night of The Sapphires to have on stage, at the end of the performance, four of the original members from the 1960s band and one of their nephews — the play’s writer, Tony Briggs.

With a bit of licence thrown in, the play is based on the experiences of four related indigenous women who grew up in rural Victoria, moved to St Kilda to work as telephonists, and made quite an impression covering Supremes material at a local nightclub called Tiki Village — enough of an impression to be signed up to tour Vietnam as entertainers for Australian troops posted there.

In Briggs’ stage version, the four women are sisters — Gail (Christine Anu), Cynthia (Casey Donovan), Kay (Kylie Farmer) and Julie (Hollie Andrew).

Just occasionally their acting becomes a bit stylised, but, heck, they are all fine performers who can certainly belt out a tune and shimmy with the best of them — and the songlist is indeed a fine one, rippling with all-time great hits such as I Heard It through the Grapevine, Love Is like a Heatwave, Respect, Chain of Fools and, of course, Stop in the Name of Love.

Don’t go along expecting a musical, though. The Sapphires is, to my taste at least, much more than that. It’s an excellent play interspersed with wonderful songs.

As “boss sister” and leader of the group, Anu is appropriately domineering and protective but shows there’s plenty of softness beneath the shell.

Donovan is, well, Donovan — an exuberant, larger-than-life character who revels in her body shape and plays the extrovert to an absolute tee.

Farmer, as the “pretty one”, is an excellent bait for the troops but also exudes enormous empathy for younger sister Julie, who’s pregnant and teetering on vulnerability.

Andrews, she of the long legs that go on forever, plays the latter role beautifully — sometimes strident, sometimes awkward, sometimes pleading for a cuddle, and just about always totally convincing and worthy of compassion.

All four male roles are well handled, especially Jimi Bani as Jimmy, Cythia’s wayward boyfriend. He also doubles as the show’s MC, in which he shows that rare combination of being as loose as a rubber band yet tight as a coiled spring.

Oliver Wenn is great as the outwardly brash and scheming manager Dave who eventually falls for both Gail and an unfortunate landmine; and Kenneth Ransom gets full credit as Robby, Kay’s laid-back military seducer.

My favourite, though, is Aljin Abella as Joe, the 14-year-old Vietnamese con artist, who just grows and grows on you, delivering plenty of laughs and also bringing home the horrific and debilitating consequences of the war on his people.

Music is key to this performance and the quartet of Andrew Weir (guitar), Daniele Di Paola (drums), Ben Collins (saxaphone) and Simon Burke (keyboards) work hand in glove with musical director Peter Farnan to build the show’s backbone.

The Seymour Centre’s York Theatre provides every inch of space and all the necessary tech to make The Sapphires a memorable night out. Get there or be sorry.

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