Tag Archives: James Hoare

Review: ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’

26 Mar

Steve Le Marquand and Travis McMahon in ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’. Photo by Jeff Busby.

As someone who had never seen Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, I had no expectations before taking my seat, which was refreshingly rare.  With that said, however, I was aware that it is considered an iconic Australian classic, about four friends who spent the summer months in a house in Carlton together.  Walking out of that theatre though, numb from so much raw emotion, I can now say that The Doll is about so much more than I originally anticipated.

Set in Melbourne in 1953, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll opens to a stage transformed into a rather bare, old 1950s living room, which is decorated entirely with kewpie dolls.  The dolls represent a tradition of souvenirs brought back from the Queensland cane fields by Roo and Barney – a doll every summer for 17 years, hence the name.

Every year cane-cutters Roo and Barney have made the trip from Queensland to Melbourne to spend the ‘lay-off’ season with two local barmaids.  The foursome spend those five months of the year partying and enjoying their freedom. In the 17th year of their annual get-together, things are different.

Nancy, one of the barmaids, gets married, so her absence leaves a gaping hole in the once cozy set-up.  Pearl, a prissy mother, is recruited by Olive to fill that hole in a desperate attempt to continue the long-established tradition.

Unfortunately, it is clear to all, except a naive Olive, that things have changed and so the story unfolds with devastating consequences as the characters question themselves and realise that despite their best efforts to avoid it, time has caught up with them.  The 17th summer is the summer of growing up and letting go.

The remarkable cast of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll really bring this story to life.  Better actors could not be imagined to recreate this classic tale.  Each member of the highly-credited cast brings something unique to their character, each of whom are well-established.

Steve Le Marquand is brooding and manly as Roo, whose pride is everything, including his downfall.  Travis McMahon, who plays Barney, offsets the strong Roo with his boyish, often pathetic charms and larrikin nature.  The strong dynamic between Le Marquand and McMahon works well to create the tension between Roo and Barney, which comes to a shattering head in the fight scene – an intense display of masculinity.

It is the women, however, who steal the show.

Helen Thompson’s uptight Pearl is a favourite with her wit and humour, instantly lightening the often depressing mood.  Thomson brilliantly toes the line between being annoyingly disapproving and judgemental to the much-needed comic relief. The character of Pearl is a nice contrast to romantic Olive.

Blazey Best was made to play Olive, whose childish idealistic views leave her deep in denial of the wreck the 17th summer has become.  Best skilfully brings a great deal of depth to Olive, who is blind to the changes in her life, refusing to grow up when everyone else is around her.  Best is tough and stubborn, while at the same time dreamy and innocent.  She brings so much emotion to Olive, which comes to a gut-wrenching climax in the final scene.  Sprawled on the floor, so desperate, her moaning sobs echoing throughout the theatre, while everyone is left holding their breath, waiting for a happy ending – one that doesn’t come.

Robyn Nevin’s character Emma, the wise elderly mother of Olive, runs the boarding house.  Nevin proves her experience with a humorous yet, worldly rendition of Emma, who along with Pearl provides comic-relief in her snide remarks and witty opinions.

The youngest members of the cast, Eloise Winestock as Bubba and James Hoare as Johnnie Dowd, also provide outstanding performances.  Their youthfulness contrasts with the rest of the cast, and acts as a reminder that Olive, Roo and Barney are no longer as young as they think or act.

Everything about this play is realistic – from the simple set and the vintage costumes to the breeze blowing the curtain of the open window and the smell of bacon frying.  The typically Australian ocker-accent of the ‘olden days’, is used heavily, but adds to the authenticity of the drama.

As someone who has never seen Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, I can appreciate its timelessness and its relevance today.  It is a story that everyone, of all ages and from all times can relate to – about growing up, or refusing to grow when everyone else around you is moving on.  It’s about a resistance to change which is inevitable.  Director Neil Armfield, has done a wonderful job in recreating this masterpiece.  As an audience we bear witness to a significant time in the characters’ lives that is so intimate – full of change and upheaval, which is portrayed by the actors in such as a way that we immediately feel empathy towards them, drawn into the drama as more than witnesses.  It makes you question your own life and whether you can really see if for what it is, or whether we too are blinded by rose-tinted glasses.

To sum-up, I must borrow the words, as I can’t put it better myself:

“There are plenty of jokes but Summer of the Seventheeth Doll is a cynical and bruising work. It exists in a nebulous distance between classes and aspirations, an intersection between past and progress where nostalgic memories combined with cold realities of an imagined future provide prisons for the characters, partly self-made, partly societal, and fully, in some context, shared with audiences.

It packs a powerful punch, and Lawler’s words have a lot of swing left in them.” (Luke Buckmaster, Crikey http://blogs.crikey.com.au/curtaincall/2012/01/20/review-summer-of-the-seventeenth-doll-playhouse-melbourne/)

More reviews:

REVIEW: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – Crikey

Review: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – Brisbane Times

Review: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – Theatre Notes

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – The Age

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – Stage Noise