April 30, 2015

60th year of Seventeenth Doll

The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
by Ray Lawlor
State Theatre Company of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
April 28. Tickets: $ 27 – $ 69.
Bookings : BASS 131246 or
Until May 16.
Duration: 2 hours 40 mins including interval.

It is now sixty years since The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was first performed. It is extraordinary to think, that in 1955, it was closer in time to the opening night of Chekhov’s Seagull than we are to the play now. But as this State Theatre Company anniversary revival amply reminds us, it is an Australian classic. Not just on the page for classroom study, or for its themes and confident sense of idiom and place, but because it is dramatically engaging and its writing is spry and vivid.

The narrative is familiar to us. For sixteen years, Roo and his mate Barney, cane-cutters from Northern Queensland, having been flying south to spend their five month season layoff living it up in Carlton with Melbourne barmaids, Olive and her friend Nancy. Every year Roo brings a kewpie doll as a souvenir. But in the seventeenth summer things are unravelling. Nancy has left to get married and everything is going bung.

Director Geordie Brookman has made interesting choices with his production. The set, by Pip Runciman is spacious and draped in loose-weave, semi-transparent curtaining, with none of the naturalistic period clutter of an old terrace house or the “riot of incidental colour” that Lawler describes. The mementos – bits of coral and framed butterflies, the bunches of celluloid dolls on sticks – are stylised; the look is low-slung and modern .

Nigel Levings’ lighting uses sumptuous creamy yellows, with tinges of teal and expressionist scarlet, while Quentin Grant’s piano and cello score, when not melodramatically intruding on the dialogue, adds a sweetly haunting, elegiac note.

The performances are strong, if sometimes – hazardously – stylistically diverse. Jacqy Phillips, closest to the original idiom of the play, is marvellously cranky as the realist Emma, watching events from afar. As Johnnie Dowd, the young ganger on the rise, Tim Overton captures the youthful vigour that Roo has lost, while Annabel Matheson as Bubba, the kid next door, is looking to create her own version of the layoff ritual.

The four principals provide emotional contrast. Lizzy Falkland as Pearl, is sharply, often amusingly drawn – the pragmatist looking, against her better judgement, to see whether these eagles flying out of the sun are marriageable prospects. As Barney, Rory Walker, is also excellent – lively, funny and desperately manoeuvring to keep the status quo.

But it is Roo and Olive (Chris Pitman and Elena Carapetis) who carry the weight of change and disappointment. Pitman has the quiet misery of a man no longer recognised as top dog, and Olive, fragile and flighty in Carapetis’ reading, is defiant at the humdrum prospect of suburban marriage.

Like Ibsen’s Doll’s House, Lawler’s remarkable play still has much to say about love, wedlock and the different destinies of men and women.

Murray Bramwell

“60th year of Seventeenth Doll” The Australian, April 30, 2015, p.14.

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