Presented by: BelvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre Belvoir St Surry Hills Thursday 29 September, 2011
Ray Lawler’s seminal Australian play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is much studied, but not oft performed because it is seen as traditional and as a result, outdated. In the program notes Ray Lawler discusses the cane cutting Australian archetype, and the fact that the myth of the bushman has all but disappeared. The play was groundbreaking in its day because of the Australian life being shown as real, with barmaids and pubs instead of nobility and parlors but this doesn’t date the play, in fact it appeals even more now that in previous decades. The ‘Doll’ is Australia’s Streetcar and this production does it perfect justice.
Ralph Myers set is picture perfect. The detail Lawler gives as to the setting is the first hurdle for anyone envisioning a production of this play but Myers manages to get the feel right without overdoing anything. The set gives the actors space to move, both literally and metaphorically, and they use this space beautifully. Neil Armfield’s direction sticks close to the traditional but manages to be fully infused with modern lightness and humor and honesty.
The beauty of this play is it’s iconically Australian and character driven so avoids the melodrama we often get mired in this wide brown land. The story revolves around just another year where two cane cutters fly down from Queensland for the lay off and spend time in the suburbs of Melbourne with their two, erm, girlfriends? Or partners? And here in such a traditional play we have a discussion about relationships that any modern women’s magazine would be proud of. Olive is untraditional and the play opens with the excitement and anticipation surrounding the arrival of the men for the seventeenth year. The big difference is that Nancy has gone and Olive has decided to trial a replacement. Nancy is an interesting character in that she is unseen yet pervades the whole show. Her decision to leave and get married is perceived by Olive as a sign of weakness and a betrayal of trust and Pearl’s introduction into the group continues to test the foundations of the DIY moral code.
The performances are superb. From the first scene between Helen Thomson’s Pearl and Yael Stone’s Bubba, the tension is strung tight and the moment Susie Porter steps on stage it escalates beautifully. It is tense and taut but also very, very funny. Steve Le Marquand (pictured, left) and Dan Wyllie as Roo and Barney respectively, hit each note with a perfect comedic note that makes the ensuing conflict all the more shocking. The introduction of TJ Power (pictured, right) as Jonnie Dowd injects youth and energy into the house and we begin watching Bubba yearn for, and chase, the ship that is sinking around them all. Susie Porter is stunning as her Olive sinks and by the end we see a damsel in distress that even Tennessee Williams would be proud to call his own.
Photo by: Heidrun Lohr