Billed as a “rock ‘n’ roll play”, this is more an intimate concert: the main interest here is the songs, which have been interspersed with dramatic vignettes to give flavour and context. These are performed by three actors and each gives a brief account of the story behind the song before the band launches into the intro. The thread which holds it all together is the overarching story of Sam Phillips, founder of Memphis’s Sun Records, and the man credited with “discovering” Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash. The play is a labour of love for lead guitarist and singer John Kennedy, who wrote the script and gives a series of accomplished impressions of the various singers.
Sam Phillips (Matt Charleston). Photo by Dusk Devi Vision.
After successful previous seasons in Melbourne and Sydney, Sons of Sun comes to the Bridge Hotel in Rozelle: the perfect venue for series of rock’n’roll and blues hits. The music is what shines here: while the “play” parts keep the story rolling along, it is the music that everyone has come to see, and Kennedy doesn’t disappoint, churning out the various hits with the help of his excellent band. His passion for this era of rock history shines through and his chameleon-like voice goes from Presley to Lewis to Cash with ease. The audience, mostly ageing rockers themselves, jive along with the familiar music. If there is any criticism at all here, it is that the songs are often too short and we are left wanting more: we sometimes are given only a glimpse, a riff, a few bars, and then we’re back to the main action.
The story itself, of Phillips and his business partner Marion “Mary” Keisker, building Sun Records from humble beginnings to become the powerhouse which launched the careers of some of rock’n’roll’s greats, follows a traditional biopic structure: the little guy with a big dream in a small town, struggling to make ends meet at first, but with a knack for knowing a “hit” when he hears it; the fall from grace as fame and fortune go to his head; redemption and forgiveness at the hands of a good woman. It’s such a well-trod path that in parts the story drags and the music is a welcome interruption. The characters are quite archetypal and Keisker in particular is written as a traditional “long-suffering female” which is a shame: Keisker’s story is certainly meatier than this.
Among the actors, performances are generally strong, with Matthew Charleston giving a charismatic and full-bodied performance as Phillips, and Corinne Marie playing Keisker with unwavering commitment. Damien Sommerlad was the weak link on the evening I attended: his lines and characters slid on more than one occasion, and as the narrator he had a bizarre accent which slipped between Cockney and Australian. His is the more difficult role as he plays all the male supporting characters, but nonetheless his performance was jarring when compared to the consummate professionalism of the actors with whom he shared the stage.
However, the focus here is rightly on the music, and Kennedy’s passion and expertise drives the show at a cracking pace. If this period of rock’n’roll history is of particular interest to you, it is an evening’s entertainment not to be missed.