October 01, 1996

Guys and Dolls

Summer of the Seventeeth Doll
Ray Lawler

Melbourne Theatre Company
in association with State Theatre

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

I have to say that I greeted the revival of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll with some trepidation. Its reputation, shall we say its legend, is a kind of tyranny – not least probably, to Ray Lawler himself. The Doll is an acknowledged turning point, a setting for historical watches, a kind of cultural synecdoche. It is also a convenient way of over-simplifying the achievement of Australian playwrights- ask Oriel Gray, Betty Roland and Dymphna Cusack about that one.

But it is incontestable that theDoll captured a sense of cultural moment – or of a long-overlooked truth- rather the way David Williamson did with The Removalists. It is slightly unnerving to note that we are now much further in time from the first performance of The Removalists than Williamson then was from the premiere of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.

Lawler’s play, again like The Removalists, is a reminder that classics aren’t written to order and that the elements which make for durability cannot be isolated for repeated application. Summer of the Seventeeth Doll is quite idiosyncratic -in its particular location, Melbourne during the summer lay-off from the North Queensland canefields, and subject, the unconventional relationship between Carlton barmaid Olive, her neighbor Bubba, another friend Pearl, and seasonal workers Barney and Roo.

The Doll recalls, as we know, the sixteen summers when the blokes come and stay with Olive and depicts the seventeenth when nothing seems the same. Barney’s girl Nancy has gone off and got married, Pearl, recruited to replace her, can’t quite see what all the romance is about, and things have changed for Barney and Roo as well. Unable to hack the pace any more Roo leaves the cane gang up north and the conflict of loyalty for his mate Barney is wearing on both of them.

The Melbourne Theatre Company production directed by Robyn Nevin and designed by Tony Tripp is proof that the Doll is a play which can still command attention. The set, a cutaway of a inner Melbourne boarding house, circa 1953, has a central living room with hallway, verandahs and french doors out to the yard. The detritus of seventeen years sentiment is evident- the coral, the butterfly displays and, of course, the sixteen kewpie dolls with coloured ruffles, carnie souvenirs and carbon datings of an urban ritual.

Robyn Nevin has used this milieu of detailed particulars to anchor the play. It is a domain of women- Olive and her sardonically observant mother Emma as well as Pearl, the temporary guest. It is scarcely a genteel environment but when Barney and Roo arrive they are awkward and ill at ease with its scale and its domesticity. Olive seeks desperately to shorten the gap but she is no match for the troubled dynamics of the world elsewhere especially a masculine struggle for dominance and self-respect set on the unforgiving terms of physical prowess.

The performances develop pace with the play itself. Genevieve Lemon as Olive begins awkwardly but in the final scenes, when her illusions crash to earth, she is powerfully convincing. Geraldine Turner gives Pearl a blowsy comedy and deflating mockery and Lois Ramsey is impeturbable as Emma. As the young fry caught up in ageing fantasies, Gerard Montgomery’s Dowd and Nadine Garner’s Bubba serve well but it is Neil Melville’s ably sustained hyperactivity as Barney and Peter Curtin, memorable as the broken warrior Roo, who have most impact.

Lawler’s play is about masculine values and the divide between the worlds of men and women. It is not a self-conscious examination of gender, which is perhaps why these themes can carry the complexity they have. The lay-off arrangement is a mirror of the separate worlds which the day to day domesticity of city life obscures. The crisis in the Doll is brought on by the narrow confines of Australian life in the 1950s. Roo is no longer the gun worker and Olive can’t bear the idea of living with Sandy Stone.

With this fine production State Theatre’s Australian Playhouse confirms Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as a classic which still has plenty to tell us. It is about men and women, work and self-esteem, the residual suspicion of hedonism, and the ways in which relationship is buffeted by all these things. It would seem, in these downsizing, outsourcing, dysfunctional times, that this play has many more summers to run.
The Adelaide Review, October 1996.

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