THEATRE: 23 MAY 2015


Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, by Ray Lawler | Directed byGeordie Brookman

State Theatre Company of South Australia | Glen Street Theatre (www.glenstreet.com.au), Belrose, Sydney | Until May 24

Every summer for 16 years, cane cutters Barney and Roo have come back from Queensland to suburban Melbourne to share the holidays with barmaids Nancy and Olive. This year though, the cycle is broken. Nancy has married and Olive has lined up Pearl to take her place. Each must face questions about the kind of life they really want and whether, perhaps, there is something new and vital to be found by the breaking of old patterns.

We studied Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in Year 10 at high school. Was it my English teacher who breathed such life into this tale? Was it the quintessentially Australian Roo who summed up those sunburnt-hard working blokes in the cane fields who captured my imagination. I was not yet even 17, so the thought of spending 17 years waiting for and dating the same man  stretched like an eternity into the future. Was I like Bubba in the play, an observer who only saw the shiny side of these relationships? The thrill of a kewpie-doll collection, souvenirs from Far North Queensland, the parties,  the laughter, the endless summer? Let’s face it, in 1955 Queensland was a world away. No jumping on a Jetstar flight to head for the sun then. Whatever it was, this play stole my heart at 17.

I had the pleasure of seeing the entire trilogy at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House) in 1985, watching the likes of Steve Bisley and Ruth Cracknell do their thing. I was mesmerised.

The last production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll — in Sydney, 2011, at the Belvior — was standing room only and I did not get a ticket. Massive disappointment.

Consequently I have been counting the days since Glen Street released this years’ program and the coming of The Doll, a State Theatre Company of South Australia production.

I wondered whether the play would be as relevant in 2015 as it had been in 1955. The itinerant workers of old have mostly been replaced with blond northern European backpackers. They certainly don’t feature as obviously in our modern day world. The closest we do have today are the FIFOs of the mining industry. Flying away for two weeks on and two weeks off. Coming home just long enough to upset the well ordered routines of children and pets around the house before flying out again. Is this something looked forward to by the women they leave at home with an excitement level just short of fever pitch?

Barney’s (Rory Walker) shocking invitation to Bubba (Annabel Matheson) to accompany Johnnie Dowd (Tim Overton) to the races needed to be put back into the context of the 1950. Otherwise the relationship nuances were still totally relevant today.

From the get-go I felt sorry for Olive (Elena Carapetis) — trying to recreate an adventure that had always gone like clockwork with sidekick-now-turncoat Nancy for her new friend Pearl (Lizzy Falkland). For Pearl, it seemed, actuality was a lot shabbier than the  exciting stories of years gone by of the “layoff”. We saw that same summation again when Johnnie came home from the pub with Barney and looked around the faded boarding house in Carlton without rose-coloured glasses.

In all the angst of The Doll, one line really made me smile, when Emma (Jacqy Phillips) calls Roo (Chris Pitman) “king pin of the North” I thought, fancy that, there has always been a king in North, not just in the Game of Thrones.

At the end of the day, though, I thought Director Geordie Brookman’s treatment of the play was missing something. Billed as surreal, it was a bit like watching The Bold and Beautiful. The actors all faced the audience to say their lines. What should have been an intense combination of human interactions around friendships, shared histories, new relationships, cracks forming in once watertight friendships, drunkenness, forced gaiety, loyalty, sadness, losses and new beginnings, was in my opinion delivered sans emotion. Yes they could shout, throw their shoes, throw fake punches and stomp upstairs, but frankly I just didn’t believe them.

In saying that I was absolutely transported along the train-crash of emotions written into the story, but I think that was Ray Lawler’s exploration of human nature rather than the particular production I was watching.