The story of The Sapphires at the Barbican, a Motown concert with a tenuous narrative in the Vietnam War at the end of the 1960s, is based on the real life story of four indigenous (Aboriginal) Australian women from the rural outback near Melbourne.
For the purposes of Neil Armfield’s slick production for the Belvoir and Black Swan State Theatre Company, the women are sisters, two large and sassy, two shorter and more troubled, who find themselves giving it up for the troops from the back of a jeep.
There’s a tangled love story with the manager (Oliver Wenn), a pregnancy and an abortion, a developing friendship with the little local Vietnamese boy (Aljin Abella), an onstage five-piece band and a winning selection of familiar and (much better) unfamiliar songs.
“Yellow Bird” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” set the tone, but there are more interesting diversions into the back catalogues of James Brown, Ray Charles, Booker T and the MGs, as well as traditional Yorta Yorta song.
The trouble is that Tony Briggs’s book is so thinly written you never get any sense of time and location, nor any idea what the purpose of the show is, apart from an excuse for the songs. It touches on the empowerment of the women, the conflicts and tensions in the characters’ ethnicity, life on the road and death in the afternoon.
But just as Million Dollar Quartet is really just about the finale and the feel-good factor, so The Sapphires builds to a frankly funky farewell from the soul divas, led by Casey Donovan’s mountainous Cynthia, in a whirl of black and white chiffon that makes them look like exotic birds of prey strafing through the smoke and carnage of a foreign landscape; but that landscape might as well have been a routine rock concert.