State Theatre Company. The Dunstan Playhouse. 28 April 2015
Australian Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is regarded as a turning point in Australian drama for its realistic depiction of ordinary Australian battlers. Lawler was riding the crest of a wave initially generated by Eugene O'Neill and perfected by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. All My Sons (1947), Death of a Salesman (1949), The Glass Menagerie (1944) and Streetcar Named Desire (1947) all preceded the Doll (1955). Each of these plays takes place in a household where a change disrupts the family situation. The authors accomplish their narrative without flashback or narration, and condense their play's critical conflict into a singularity which explodes like a dying star… and things can never be the same.
This is the seventeenth year that besties Roo and Barney travel south from the cane fields for the lay-off. They descend on the Melbourne abode of Olive, Roo's girl, and her mum, Emma, for five months of laughs. This year is different. Barney's squeeze, Nancy, has left the scene after seventeen years, and Olive has invited her barmaid pal, Pearl, to fill the gap. There's also heaps of new baggage brought from the cane fields, and it's all got to get sorted before final applause.
I didn't care for this production. Set designer Pip Runciman's interpretation of a 1950s Melbourne worker's cottage resembled a funeral parlour, and its expansiveness dissipated the energy. The enormous cornices belonged in Toorak. Lizzy Falkland's overly severe, negative and dour Pearl, with the set and from the get-go, too strongly foreshadowed the lifting of the veil on the lay-off set-up, and badly diminished the play's journey. Elena Carapetis's Olive had hard work against these features in trying to establish the excitement and anticipation of the boys coming back. The only stuff on the set was what was absolutely required, and this was insufficient to manifest the nearly two decades of accretion that ought to be so violently disassembled in the second half.
Chris Pitman's Roo was reduced to a Neanderthal brute - too lost in self-pity and one-dimensional. Tim Overton's Johnny Dowd - the young ganger and threat to Roo ruling the roost - performed in a straitjacket labeled threatening - and his offer of reconciliation looked disingenuous. Even the affable Barney, in the hands of Rory Walker, seemed an insidious schemer instead of a comic waster. Annabel Matheson did Bubba (the young neighbour) well, and Jacqy Phillips as the irascible Emma stole her every scene. The scuffle choreographed by Duncan Maxwell was not good.
Clearly there was a design intention in these performance and production elements under the direction of Geordie Brookman. But the result was mannered and turgid. The subversion of naturalism, lines being delivered out front, the overwrought performances and sad and heavy characterisations failed to convey the arc from hopefulness to loss. They were doomed from the start.
When: 24 April to 16 May
Where: Dunstan Playhouse
Photography by Shane Reid