Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Big, beautiful and loud: The Sapphires

In my newly found enthusiasm for everything Barbican, I noticed promotions for a touring show from Australia: “The Sapphires”, a musical presented by Belvoir and Black Swan State Theatre Company. How could I resist a Neil Armfield production? So I bought a ticket to a weekend evening performance – only to have it cancelled because someone apparently injured themselves at the matinee. I still don’t know who, how or whether it was serious. But fortunately for them, and I, whoever it was recovered in a day or two and I was able to see the show during the next week.

The story is quite a simple one, but full of things that resonate with Australians: aboriginal singers from the country making good in the big smoke, Vietnam, and Motown songs; the 1960s; broad rural ocker accents. How much these things resonate with British audiences is moot. The night I was there the Barbican theatre was about half-full. The Guardian review

called it “a genuine, heartfelt but unconvincing compilation musical.” I thought the story was weak, the band too loud and the acting from some of the cast quite poor – but they were hamstrung by a bad script. As the Guardian reviewer put it:

the characterisations are so lacklustre and the dialogue so forgettable that in the end you start longing for the cast to jettison the script and just put on a concert. When they finally do that, towards the end, these Sapphires really sparkle.

But in my case, the Australian-ism, and especially the broad Aussie accents made me home-sick. And I don’t even admire broad Aussie accents. I was glad to see the show.

On the subject of the acting, the men in the cast were generally good; and Casey Donovan as ‘Cynthia’ acted very well. All four women sang their hearts out.

The reviewers in London were not kind. Here's  the Londonist

The small but shapely cast attack the halting work with enthusiasm on the back of a successful Australian tour, vigorous and dilettante. But this production lacks the slickness and sparkle expected by London audiences.

The Telegraph reviewer was happier in the end, despite the ‘creaky’ story line:

The Sapphires look terrific, two of them very big girls indeed, the other pair much slighter, all dolled up in outrageously gaudy costumes, including the biggest feather boas I have ever seen. The numbers range from the Chiffons and the Supremes to Aretha Franklin’s deep-soul classics and James Brown funk, with a cracking on-stage band that comes close to matching the chops of the Stax house band, Booker T and the MGs.
The banter between the sisters is often richly comic, but when they sing they rise to magnificence, combining rich soaring harmonies with thrilling passion.
The best performance comes from Casey Donovan, built on the lines of Mama Cass, whose Franklin covers achieve extraordinary poignancy and power. But Lisa Maza, Megan Sarmardin and Ngaire Pigram all have their moments of glory, too.
Neil Armfield’s production cannot disguise the weakness of some of the writing, but it seems churlish to niggle about a show that finally overwhelmed me with tears of joy.

Before we leave this show, can I just mention the, er, elephant in the room. This Casey Donovan girl is huge. Bigger than lots of the opera singers whose size I regularly mention. And what’s more – I looked it up – she is only 23 years old. This cannot be good, health-wise. But I see from Wikipedia that she has recorded a song called ‘Big, Beautiful and Sexy’ and “has become a poster girl for larger women”. In “The Sapphires” she carried herself with amazing confidence and aplomb, as if it were not only perfectly normal but also attractive to be built like a bus. She is a very pretty girl, but I found an almost morbid fascination in watching her move around all that bulk. Can this be alright? Is it just me?


  1. The Sapphires got pretty much the same criticisms in Australia, the difference being that the British press are far more acerbic. Praise was lavished on the performances - especially Casey Donovan- but the play itself was found wanting. I didn't see it at the Barbican but at three different venues in Australia and have to agree about the thinness of the plot and the cliched characters. Critics in Australia who gave it positive reviews (and there were a lot of them) tended to concentrate on the music and the performances.

    However, despite the negative British press, audiences seems to have enjoyed it. Twitterers reported standing ovations and people dancing in the aisles.

    The performance was canceled because the actress who played Julie fell and cut her head. Only one performance was canceled.

    I think you need to read the lyrics of 'Big, Beautiful and Sexy' to understand where Casey is coming from. It's not a promotion for obesity. It's really about feeling good about yourself whatever your size. People who like themselves take care of themselves. Conversely, people who don't like themselves often turn to food and it creates a vicious cycle.

    The song is also a response to the 'bullying' she's received over the years.

    Casey is in the process of losing weight and she's a regular gym goer. She'll always be a big girl though. She has POD that not only makes her prone to put on weight easily but also makes it very hard to lose it. I read that she's aiming to be a size 18 which is a realistic goal for her determined by her doctor.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Meg. I wish Casey well -she's very talented and a pretty girl.