Review: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

by Jane

The seventeenth summer Olive (Susie Porter) will spend with Roo (Steve le Marquand) is beginning: the summer of 1953.  Every year, women of the city Olive and Nancy welcome Roo and Barney (Dan Wylie) down from the Queensland canefields for the five month layoff between seasons.  Five months of spending money, living the city life, partying with the women, being looked after by these women, and by Olive’s mother, Emma (Robyn Nevin), and dotting on the girl next door, Bubba (Yael Stone).

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll: Pearl and Bubba at the table

But the seventeenth year will be different.  Fed up with the nomadic lifestyle of her man, Nancy has gone off and married; she won’t be joining in the antics this summer.  In her place is Pearl (Helen Thompson), the widowed friend of Olive, who doesn’t quite seem sure about the arrangement at all.

As the four try to find their feet in a new grouping, they must grapple with the ramifications of a difficult season on the field – where disagreements with a new upstart Johnnie (TJ Power) saw Roo unemployed and now out of pocket – with the replacement of a core member of the group in Melbourne, and with how society expects these couples to behave.  Roo, in particular, struggles to define what makes him a “man” – both on the field, and in a woman’s home.

Olive, for her part, is happy to live a life of independence.  She has her own home with her mother, she keeps her own life and job, her years punctuated in frivolity with her men, before again returning to a happy life of liberty.  She is kept for five months of the year, but in this time she is also being the keeper: even when Olive’s man is “home”, as he takes her to parties and out to shows, she still works, he lives in her house.  This independence of the female characters is also seen in Emma.  When Roo is in financial strife, it is her, an elderly woman, who offers him a lone to help him out.

And yet, we are left with the idea that if Bubba (perhaps played as a rather concerningly young 22-year-old by Stone) were to follow this path, the world of cane-cutter men and bumper summers, idealising a world of Kewpie dolls and layoffs, this world would be bad for her.  No, we are expected to think.  She should be looking for a nice, stable, city man.  Someone to look out for her.  Both Barney and Nancy buy into the romance and stability that comes with married life – but neither was able to fully admit it, commit to a change in a relationship carefully curated and spent in the summer.  In the end, none that spent their summer in this house are happy with their lives.  Perhaps it is just seventeen years in any situation, a lifetime of suspended animation, is bad for everyone.

It’s not hard to see why The Doll became an Australian classic.  Ray Lawler created for his Melbourne audiences both a world which is slightly fantastical – seventeen summers and seventeen kewpie dolls, men from the land returning to their women behind the bars – yet still grounded in the urban Australian landscape the audience was sitting in.  Lawler’s play embeds the heat and mugginess of an Australian summer, a stifling atmosphere which sets down tensions over everything before too long.  If perhaps a bit long, dwelling too much on the superfluous, Lawler plays with passion and frustration, drama and humour, embattled dreams and embedded traditions.

Director Neil Armfield faithfully stages this production in the ’53 Melbourne in which Lawler wrote of: sets, costumes, mannerisms. Yet, part of this setting is through an unnatural placement of his cast’s accents.  These accents come off as acquired, overly broad, and overly mannered in their attempt to be that of the working-class, middle-century accent of their owner.  This settling of intonation has a similar dissociating affect as modern Australian productions of Shakespearean text presented with British accents.  The performances in characterisation are strong, the cast all working their way through the many layers of their characters – the veneers of toughness, the undersides of struggle – as they should be, for such an accomplished ensemble (although I cannot get over my confusion with Stone’s Bubba appearing to be 22 and about to turn nine), and yet I still felt no matter how close they got to the heart of a character, the accent would always keep them from getting their completely.

The play is in many ways embedded with what I have (rather unfortunately) come to expect from our presentation of classics: many characters, an interval or two, and a gulf of time that I feel too young to bridge.  I left the play satisfied with seeing a piece of Australia’s theatre history.  I didn’t leave the theatre feeling like I had experienced much more than this history lesson in a nice setting.  Is this production, or is this text?  I’m afraid I don’t know. The broad stage – the sitting room of Ralph Myer’s set extending the whole of the Belvoir playing space – causes gulfs between character interactions, and a further gulf towards the audience.  And although the playing space was confusingly large, the sweep of cracked paint, tones of green ageing through the peach, kitsch nostalgia lining the walls and piano, is immediately familiar.  Damien Cooper’s lighting sees the space awash in warmth and heart, and the sound (composer Alan John, sound designer Paul Charlier) carries us along through the joy of the summer, as in the corner we watch the pianola play itself.

As a particularly small but particularly wonderful thing to leave this review with: there is something beautiful in the theatricality or the trickery of the music playing out of the pianola.  Perhaps, the pianola is a uniquely theatrical instrument.  As it plays the music live, we see the keys descend, moving to strike the sting which they rest above, and yet, this is nothing more than the machinery, moving on its own.  As the sun also rises through the window cut into the corner of the stage looking out on to Belvoir Street, the light (the music) is real, but the source is not.  There is no sun; there is no pianist: there is only this.  There is only theatre. The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll Belvoir presents The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler.  Directed by Neil Armfeild. Set design by Ralph Myers, costume design by Dale Ferguson, lighting design by Damien Cooper, composition by Alan John, sound design by Paul Charlier, assistant director Susanna Dowling.  With Luke Ford, Steve le Marquand, Robyn Nevin, Susie Poretr, TJ Power, Yael Stone, Helen Thomson and Dan Wylie.  At Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney.  Season closed.  Photos by Heidrun Lohr.