Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
By Ray Lawler
542 King St, Newtown
Until June 27
Review by Helen Jarvis
The New Theatre has revived this Australian classic in a pacey production directed by Elaine Hudson. Ray Lawler's 1953 script retains its appeal and its message despite the demise of the social milieu it portrayed — the cane cutters from north Queensland coming to Melbourne for the "lay-off" — real Aussie men with all their foibles and charms.
For 16 years, Roo (Theo Burns) and Barney (Alan Flower) have spent the lay-off with Olive (Lisa Peers) and her friend Nancy, barmaids at the local pub.
This year things have changed, for Nancy has opted for married life, so Olive has brought another workmate, Pearl (Colleen Cook) to see if she can step into Nancy's shoes as Barney's companion. Each year Roo has brought Olive a kewpie doll and these decorate the house, along with feathers and shells from the north.
The opening scene, on the day the men are due to arrive, is bursting with expectation and tension. Olive is filled with excitement, parading in her new dress, putting bottles of beer out on the table, telling stories of the wonderful times they shared over the past 16 years.
Pearl is sitting primly with her bags left by the door for a quick getaway in case she and Barney don't hit it off. She fairly drips with moral superiority and suspicion, yet wants to share some of the good life Olive has spoken so much about.
When Roo and Barney arrive, it is clear that more has changed than just the absence of Nancy. Everything falls apart as each of the characters faces a reality far removed from their imagination and desires. How each of the four main characters reacts, and their interaction with each other, sustains the play's three acts.
Three other figures provide a counterpoint to the central cast: Olive's mother, Emma, is played in a feisty performance by Patricia O. Jones, who takes the micky out of everyone else and never misses a trick; Bubba (Rowena Doyle), the next door neighbour who has known and adored the cane cutters since she was a small child; and Johnny Dowd (Nicholas Mitsakis), another cane cutter, who brings all kinds of hard truths and challenges with him.
All seven actors keep the dramatic tension throughout this long play, and carry off some scenes that could easily have fallen into melodrama, although on the night I saw the play, the largely school-age audience giggled and catcalled in some of the moments of pain and tenderness.
The Seventeenth Doll was a great hit in Australia and London in the 1950s. Its popularity revolved around Lawler's combining of nostalgia for with questioning of the great Australian dream. Its messages are still worth thinking about, and this performance makes for an enjoyable, if tearful, night at the theatre.