Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, MTC, Jan 16, 2012 ***1/2

By Ray Lawler 
Melbourne Theatre Company present Belvoir St production 
Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, Jan 16 until Feb 18, 2012 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Jan 16, 2012 
Stars: ***& 1/2

Helen Thomson and Travis McMahon. Photo by Jeff Busby.
RAY LAWLER'S 1955 classic Australian play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, is a domestic tragedy in which nothing dies except illusions.

It slowly and meticulously dismantles its characters’ romantic dreams and memories to reveal the bleak ordinariness of their lives.

We peer like voyeurs into the old Carlton house where hopelessly romantic barmaid, Olive (Alison Whyte) lives with her crotchety mother, Emma (Robyn Nevin).

There, Olive entertains two cane-cutters, Barney (Travis McMahon) and Roo (Steve Le Marquand) for five months during their layoff season.

What keeps Olive alive for seven months of the year is the romantic excitement of the past 16 years and the tantalising hopes for this 17th year and the 17th kewpie doll that Roo will bring her as a gift.

But the gloss goes off their summer fantasies because Nancy, Barney’s girl, is now married and time finally catches up and reality confronts them.

Olive’s obsessive fantasising and embellishment of their summers is accentuated by Pearl (Helen Thomson), the newcomer who sees their lives warts and all and insensitively shares her views.

In 1955, this play broke boundaries with its Aussie vernacular and working class characters and, although that is commonplace now, it blazed a trail for our playwrights of the 70s.

 Steve Le Marquand & Alison Whyte. Photo by Jeff Busby. 
The women are the strength in this production and the joyful hilarity of Act One owes much to Thomson’s impeccable comic delivery and breezy prissiness as Pearl bluntly lends her perspective.

Whyte’s Olive has a bright brittleness that makes her sympathetic, and the tragedy of the last act radiates from Olive as we wait for her to splinter when her dreams fracture.

Although the men lack some credibility as rough, brutish cane cutters, Le Marquand has the bluff reticence and oafishness of Roo while McMahon captures Barney’s cheeky roguishness.

Nevin almost steals her scenes as wiry, little Emma, delivering acerbic comments with perfect timing.

As the youthful characters, Eloise Winestock as Bubba and TJ Power as Johnnie Dowd, accentuate the lost youth of the others and hint at another generation repeating the same mistakes.

There is sometimes an imbalance between the comedy and tragedy, awareness and ignorance, and the play flags a little in Act Two, particularly with two intervals.

However Lawler’s play, directed deftly by Neil Armfield, depicts a microcosm of the hidden lives of ordinary working people in a critical world that values predictability and propriety over romance.

By Kate Herbert

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