Summer of the Seventeenth Doll at Canberra Theatre

17 Mar

After a pretty scrumptious dinner at Sage Restaurant (hat tip to Johnboy’s review for piquing our interest – my review to follow soon!) last night, Boyfriend and I headed off to Ray Lawler‘s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, performed by Belvoir Street at the Canberra Theatre. Simply everyone I’d spoken to had heard of Doll (including the waiter at Sage who told us he was jealous!), leading me to conclude that despite being first performed in 1955, Doll remains a staple for English and Drama high school students.

For me, there was a fair bit of hype surrounding Doll. Despite performing scenes from it twice in high school and having been incredibly moved by its themes (I weirdly loved reading plays), I’d never seen the whole thing, and we managed to purchase the last few released tickets before it was completely sold out in Canberra.

The performance took place in the Playhouse in the Canberra Theatre – basically on the side that’s not close to the box office. The Playhouse has plenty of balcony seats which don’t seem to stretch back too far – I’m not entirely sure what sort of view you’d get, but at least it would be unobstructed. And that’s more than I can say for our view. We had superb seats smack bang in the middle of the floor, but the Playhouse doesn’t have particularly good height differences between its seats; if there’s someone in front of  you with particularly bouffy hair, you’re in trouble.

Doll goes something like this: Roo (Steve Le Marquand) and Barney (Travis McMahon) are two cane cutters who work up in North Queensland for seven months of the year earning money, and for five months of the year (the ‘lay off’) they head down south to spend their time off and their money with two women who spend those seven months waiting for them – Nancy (Barney’s girl) and Olive (Roo’s girl, played by Blazey Best). It’s been going on for 16 years. They all stay at Olive’s mother’s (Emma’s – played by Robyn Nevin) old boarding house. Next door lives a kid called Bubba (Eloise Winestock) who’s grown up with all the shenanigans and excitement next door, and while she’s been included, she’s been a little envious. But in this year, the Seventeenth, where the play begins, things are different. Nancy’s gone off and got married – she doesn’t appear in the play at all. But everyone tries to keep it exactly as it was. Roo and Barney still head back down. Olive brings in another woman from her work at the bar, Pearl (Helen Thompson), to try to match up with Barney in Nancy’s place. Bubba and Olive are still as excited as ever to see the boys (much better described as middle-aged men).  And just as in every year, Roo brings Olive a kewpie doll, which she proudly displays along with the 16 others.

Of course, all isn’t as it seems; things aren’t just as they always were, however much they try to make them be. Despite how much Olive tries to convince everyone, newcomers Pearl and another cane-cutter from up north, Johnny Dowd, find themselves instead confronted with a sad reality which doesn’t come anywhere near Olive’s descriptions.

The play was billed as an extraordinary play interpreted by an extraordinary director (Neil Armfield). The play is extraordinary, with its themes genuinely heart-wrenchingly powerful. Even though it’s more than 50 years old, its messages ring true and it’s easy to empathise – however much you might not want to or be embarrassed about – with all the characters: proud Roo who hasn’t wanted to confront change, but accepts it; Olive who’s happy with what she’s got and doesn’t want it to change at any cost; Bubba who admires her neighbours and wants to imitate them. The symbolism is strong, with the presents from Roo and Barney so proudly displayed by Olive for so many years falling apart when she touches them.

But is the directing powerful? I’m not sure. The set design was exquisite, but it felt to me like the actors were tired. As we left, someone behind me remarked that it must be very draining to play these characters and I think it’s fair to say that some of them might have been so drained that they didn’t have much fuel left for the emotions and the inflections required. (To be fair, the play’s been performed for the last few months throughout Australia, so it’s kind of understandable.) I thought Barney’s performance was flat, with his monologues like going through the motions. Bubba was shrill and over the top. Sentences were run together, when a few well-placed pauses would have dramatically heightened – or even completely altered – the mood.

Emma and Olive were the standouts for me. Emma was one of those cantankerous mothers, and those roles can often be so funny that they steal the show. Instead, she complemented the performance; her role’s meaningful place wasn’t understated just for the sake of laughs (though she was still hilarious). Olive was superb throughout – a truly nuanced performance – except at just one, disappointing point near the critical end when what she’d said was supposed to be pointed and emotional, and the audience laughed instead!

While Doll is worth it as a powerful play on its own, not all would agree. Boyfriend told me early on it was “so boring” (he got a death stare) and afterwards he said it really didn’t have a plot at all. It’s certainly not action packed, but I think the plot is there. However, perhaps the time it took from start to end made it feel like not a lot happened. The play went for 3 hours with two intervals, and another couple behind us remarked at the end, “That was sooo long!”

As for whether it was worth seeing this version of the play? For all my criticisms, it really did bring to life something that held a lot of meaning for me throughout high school and helped cement Doll in my mind as a truly exemplary and relatable drama. To do that, it’s got to have been pretty all right.

Date: Friday, 16 February 2012

Attendees: T1 and Boyfriend:

Cost: $65 (A Reserve U 27) and $73 (A reserve adult)

Worthwhile factor: Worthwhile

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3 Responses to “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll at Canberra Theatre”

  1. Gary Lum March 18, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    Fond memories from school.

  2. Shin Guay May 13, 2017 at 5:42 pm #

    Richard Ellenbogen


  1. Three course dinner at Sage « In The Taratory - March 18, 2012

    […] me; I felt like I was missing out! On the night that we were heading out to see the performance of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (tickets which I’d purchased), Boyfriend asked for dinner ideas. I sneakily suggested Sage […]

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