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February 14, 2012 / Siobhan Argent

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (Melbourne Theatre Company)


If there was ever a reason to appreciate fifties fashion, it’s all down to seeing a man in a well-cut pair of slacks. This only happens once in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, and it’s via a small player in the form of Johnnie Dowd (played by the distractingly fetching TJ Power). Nothing quite pushes home how much of a girl you are until seeing a dress shirt tucked into ironed pants sends you off into a dreamy state of half-distraction.

For any Australian, Summer’s themes will set the bells of recognition ringing, regardless of the era. And you’ll have plenty of time to get the bells ringing, because this play runs to something like two and a half hours, including two fifteen-minute intermissions. Set in the 1950s, writer Ray Lawler’s most famous work revolves around four people meeting up in Melbourne during the seventeenth lay-off period of the sugar-cane cutting rotation, based in Queensland. Up until the sixteenth season, Roo and Barney (Steve Le Marquand and Travis McMahon) came down to Melbourne for the summer and had their five-month flings with Olive (Alison Whyte) and Nancy respectively. While Roo does, as always, bring yet another kewpie doll to Melbourne to mark another year spent together, this stay will not be like any of the others.

This year, the situation has changed markedly, for the first time ever; Nancy has married someone else, and her replacement, the staid Pearl (Helen Thomson), makes it clear that the three remaining players can never regain what they had in the past. Pearl seems as though she may be a horrible bore initially, but Helen Thomson works the role beautifully, absolutely stealing her main scenes with characteristically prim-and-proper attempts to put decorum before debauchery. She twangs her vowels marvellously in what seems almost a southern-American interpretation of Australian ocker, giving her the delightfully superficial air of refined hauteur. Whyte, as the hard-shell Olive, does well to bring across her character’s defiant optimism in the face of acknowledged impropriety. Her whole world revolves around these visits, her time otherwise spent dreaming about the day the boys come home and giving her something to look forward to during the long winter months spent working.

Ray Lawler’s seminal ‘Australian’ play has more depth than initially seems apparent. It’s a deceptively simple idea—four people ignoring social convention and hooking up for the fun of it—but that in itself acts as a stage for much deeper injuries to be laid bare. Roo and Barney both suffer from that terribly fragile kind of machismo, one that seems impossibly strong in good times, only to crumble hopelessly under pressure. While Roo’s confidence clearly depends on his ability to be top dog in the sugar-cane fields, Barney’s not so bothered, as long as he can continue to make women swoon. Both experience their own kinds of crisis, exacerbated by Pearl’s presence, Nancy’s sudden departure, and Olive’s desperate attempts to revive what they used to have.

In Summer, the audience is also watching a necessary disintegration of classic Australian values; it is, in this way, an undoubtedly Australian play. Watching Summer constantly made me think of Australia as a young nation, small, fragile and dependent on bigger entities, until at last the definitive rupture of world war tore the country from the shackles of national childhood. Lawler’s play is a little like the Australian loss of innocence in miniature; Summer is about growing up and not being sure that you like where you’re headed. This play, too, shatters the great Australian dream of prosperity and security; the four main characters seem completely unaware of just how desperately they cling to the perfect dream lifestyle until Nancy’s departure, and Roo’s sudden demotion, make it clear that it may never really have been an ideal situation.

But it’s not all drama. Lawler’s genius sense of balance times the comedy perfectly, and in the MTC production, excellent casting has ensured it is beautifully delivered. Elderly crank neighbour Emma, played by Robyn Nevin, has a ball milking her one-liners for everything they’re worth. Both Pearl’s incandescent moments of wry humour and Emma’s tough-nut sarcasm lighten what turns out to be a very dark mood indeed, once this play really gets going. Side players also add a bit of flavour in Kathy ‘Bubba’ Ryan (Eloise Wisestock) as the girl next door and wide-eyed innocent, and Johnnie Dowd (TJ Power) as the ‘Young Dowd’, competitor to Roo in the sugar-cane cutting season and threat to the very core of Roo’s masculine identity. The play could more or less live without these two characters, but they’re not an unwelcome addition and they do act as a kind of Greek chorus; through them, the audience sees the main four through the eyes of the younger, less-jaded pair, who have yet to bear decades of disappointment and hardship. Through the Dowd/Bubba framework, we are reminded that being older does not necessarily guarantee being wiser, only the more vulnerable to threat.

Costume Designer Dale Ferguson had a field day with his costume choices, choosing the oh-so-suitable ill-fitting slacks for the older, working-class gents and beautiful A-line skirts for Bubba and, to a slightly simpler extent, Pearl and Olive. As mentioned, Johnnie Dowd demonstrates how tucking you shirt into your pants (and actually washing your pants) can do more for a man than any high-flying job.

If Summer has taught me anything about Australian life, it is contrary to the messages that seem to be taken as gospel today. Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll suggests the unthinkable; that being young and naïve may be a blessing, and that growing old disgracefully is just another way of preventing people from maturing until it’s too late.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll will run with the Melbourne Theatre Company until Feb 18. Click the image above for tickets.

Further reading: A Meanjin interview with Ray Lawler, writer of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.

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