If you were high-schooled in Australia, no doubt you would have studied Ray Lawler’s play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, written in 1953. As a staple to our cultural diet, it is fitting the Australian classic has been brought back to the stage by Belvior Theatre and the Queensland Theatre Company, to be appreciated anew.
The premise of the play seems simple enough, two Queensland cane-cutters, Roo and Barney, head to Melbourne for the five month lay-off season to their long-time girlfriends of the past sixteen years, Olive and Nancy. Only this time, Nancy, sick of waiting for the on-again-off-again love affair, grew up and got herself a husband and a respectable life (much to Olive’s disgust). Determined to keep the status-quo, Olive recruits her conservative, social-conscious, bar-maid friend Pearl to be Nancy’s stand-in. Pearl’s character sheds light on what the arrangement looks like from the outside world and how it actually stands up today, sans Olive’s nostalgic memories of the past sixteen glorious summers, and this is where the trouble starts.
Anchoring this play as a timeless classic is the number of under-lying themes including the socio-political commentary on Australian middle-class sensibilities, gender roles, social conformity, mateship, change and growing up; all of which would take a high-school essay to bring to the surface.
Although the very Australian (think over-produced ‘ocker’) accent was jarring at first, once acclimatised the dialect just became part of the fabric or re-construction of the time, place and social standing of the characters and the play.
The vintage cotumes, lighting design by Damien Cooper and set design by Ralph Myers wonderfully re-created the nostaligic 1950’s Carlton boarding house, including sixteen Kewpie Dolls, working pianolla, the changing daylight and the wind-swept lace curtain in the open window. Symbolically, the set is dismantled toward the end, reflecting the decimation of Olive’s built up fantasy life and the future of everyone involved.
Alison Whyte is the driving force of this production as Olive, idealistic and fiercely defensive of her lifestyle choice. Whyte’s strength held the stage and was perfect for this role. Helen Thomson as the conservative but hilarious Pearl was able to deftly balance two seemingly opposing character traits, and provided half of the much needed comic relief. The other half was provided by Robyn Nevin as Olive’s mother, the lovably abrupt Emma Leech. Travis McMahon was fitting as the cheeky larikan Barney, but unfortunately I did not warm up to the Roo character played by Steve Le Marquand. Although the man is struggling with his own masculinity, I pictured him to be a big warm strong, easy going teddy-bear of a man who is doing his best to hide the emasculating issues that is depressing him, rather than wearing his struggles on his sleeve. Eloise Winestock as Bubba, although energetic and enthusiastic, seemed to over-characterise the role rather than play a naive girl on the outskirts of womanhood. James Hoare as the young up-coming ganger Johnnie Dowd was strong and gave substance to a role that could have easily fallen prey to the leads.
Whether or not you think of this play as dated or question its relevance in today’s society (yet another high-school essay topic), Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is an iconic Australian work that should remain an important part of our Australian theatre-going repertoire and cultural education. If you don’t see this play for the story, the history and the wonderful performances at least go to to experience the dying art of the three-act play.