Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, May 9 ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·
It’s not often a play’s set makes me analyse my obsession with mid-century furniture. But such is the case with Black Swan State Theatre Company’s stunning production of The Doll (as it is affectionately known). From the standard lamp and floral velour sofa, to the vinyl pouffe and the laminex table, the set closely resembles my home’s interior. It caused me to ponder why I have compulsively acquired items from an era steeped in such conservative values.
Ah, nostalgia; that trap of rosy retrospection.
Ray Lawler’s classic play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, set in 1953 and first performed in ‘55, speaks of the unbearable nostalgia and the confusion of a group of people when their beloved private world disintegrates under the stress of time and shifting circumstances. It examines what happens when people cling to the past out of fear of an uncertain future.
It is also a tragedy of the inarticulate, who feel more than they can express. Emotional honesty or nuanced vocabulary – like job security or savings – is a distant luxury.
Like generations of Australians, I read The Doll at school. But in my Year 11 drama room in 1989, its outdated colloquial language just seemed cringeworthy. (“Pigs I will!”, “Real ear-basher, he is.”) Its themes were utterly lost on us. Amateur productions I’ve seen were tragically shouty.
But finally, (finally!) I get it. I appreciate the brilliance of Lawler’s text, thanks to Adam Mitchell’s sensitive direction, the luminous design by Bruce McKinven and Trent Suidgeest, and the quality of the acting.
Amy Mathews is superb as the sunny (but ultimately distraught) thirty-something barmaid Olive, who lives with her ageing, acerbic mother Emma (Vivienne Garrett) in a Victorian terrace in Carlton. Olive swoons adoringly, as she awaits the arrival of Roo and his mate Barney, down from cane cutting in Queensland for the five-month lay-off season. It’s been rinse-repeat for the past sixteen summers: Roo teaming up with Olive and Barney with Nancy. But with Nancy now married and sceptical Pearl invited as a possible replacement, it’s time to enter the spin cycle.
Kelton Pell is convincing as the proud, hot-headed Roo, who has returned to Melbourne stripped of his status, money and dignity. Machismo renders him all but mute (“Whatever. Don’t much care.”) until he vents with his fists.
Jacob Allan is outstanding in the role of Barney, a lively, un-reconstructed “ladies man” whose lack of self-awareness provides much of the play’s humour.
Alison van Reeken does well to portray the highly-strung widow Pearl, whose fresh perspective on the men’s behaviour, and the group’s dynamic, accelerates inevitable change.
Michael Cameron swaggers as Roo’s rival, the young upstart Johnnie Dowd. Mackenzie Dunn exudes a warm charm as Bubba, whose attraction to Johnnie shocks the other characters into confronting some home truths.
Of course, staging (and viewing) The Doll now is more than an act of nostalgia. The rise of the fly-in, fly-out lifestyle, and the challenge that poses for couples and families, adds contemporary resonance. So too does society’s growing critique of toxic masculinity.
Lawler’s characters are full of ambiguity and contradiction, though, and he resists moralising. Take Roo’s act of continuing to give Olive kewpie dolls: is it sweet, or infantilising – like some sugar (cane) daddy?
Olive’s rejection of marriage reminds me somewhat of Nora in Ibsen’s Doll House. When Nora says she cannot be a good wife and mother without learning to be more than a plaything, her husband is baffled because it contradicts all he has been taught about women. Likewise, Roo is at a loss to understand why Olive would not want to be his wife.
Does happiness elude her because she has been treated as a plaything and come to expect no better, or does she genuinely want to live beyond the trappings of marriage? Surely some women still grapple with the same question.
My only connection to Queensland or the world of cane-cutting has been through my long-standing love of the Go-Betweens’ song “Cattle and Cane”. Grant McLennan’s lyrics drip with affection and longing; nostalgia and melancholy. “From time to time the waste, memory wastes (memory wastes).”
I can’t be sure what McLennan means by those lines, though I’ve sung them with conviction countless times. But given that he wrote the song on Nick Cave’s guitar in London while feeling homesick for rural Queensland…
Perhaps there’s something in that for Olive and Roo and Barney and all of us. Memory lies. Memory wastes. The past was not necessarily a better place.
Top: Sensitive design and quality acting: Amy Mathews as Olive and Alison van Reeken as Pearl. Photo: Photo: Philip Gostelow.