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Review: Big Name, No Blankets at Melbourne Town Hall - Rising Festival

Reviewed by Lucy Lucas 

The joyful lovechild of traditional theatre and a classic rock gig Big Name, No Blankets interweaves the stories of Sammy Butcher with the songs of the legendary band he and his brothers founded, The Warumpi Band. Anchored by their original songs, including household hits Blackfella/Whitefella and My Island Home (sung in Gumatj), the play intersperses them with anecdotes and imagined sequences charting the brothers’ journey from desert camp to joining with guitarist Neil Murray and Yolngu singer George Burarrwanga and then onto the international stage. Through these songs and stories Big Name, No Blankets weaves a soulful celebration of the phenomenal journey of the Warumpi Band and their community and genuinely brings the entire audience to their feet, again and again. 

The Warumpi Band were trailblazers; the first band to sing in language (mostly Luritja) on a rock and roll recording, they opened for Midnight Oil, toured the world and were nominated for a slew of ARIA awards. Big Name, No Blankets will satisfy die-hard fans whilst reviving their legendary music and showmanship for a new generation. Written by Andrea James with consultation by Sammy Butcher (of the original band line-up), directed by Dr Rachel Maza and Anyupa Butcher (Sammy’s daughter) and with musical direction by Gary Waitling Big Name, No Blankets is a truly collaborative piece. It honours Ilbijerri Theatre Company’s ethos of Blak-led storytelling with cultural and community-based consultation integrated at every level of development. The way this story has been developed and told is as essential as the content itself – the work is infused with a deep respect and a moving commitment to honouring the legacy and humanity of the people who lived it.

The production oozes energy and the dynamic storytelling makes nearly two hours feel much shorter. Baykali Ganambarr shines as Sammy Butcher, a natural and deeply vulnerable storyteller, he grounds the explosive energy of the rest of the cast. He gently and heartbreakingly renders Sammy’s painful balancing act between the excitement of success and the yearning for home and family. Whilst the entire team is phenomenal, Taj Pilgrim also brings a standout exuberance to the role of George – doing great justice to his vitality and spark (as attested to by those who knew him in the post-show foyer chat). 

Emily Barrie’s excellent and restrained stage design places two worlds in one space: desert camp and international rock stage always existing concurrently, the Butcher brothers’ home forever present yet just out of reach. The literal and eternal home fire burns as a subtle but powerful metaphor of the Country and family the bandmates left and that eventually called them back despite their worldly successes. 

Big Name, No Blankets is an electric celebration of brotherhood, culture and the connective power of music. Heartfelt and heart-warming it is, at its heart, simply fantastic storytelling. 

Image Supplied


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