Barbara and René are sisters and cousins and singing partners. They’re scraping together a living at odd gigs in Sydney but, when their mother gets sick, they go on a journey to find her first in Darwin and then back in their hometown of Katherine. It isn’t easy to return to a place you ran from and, for Barbara, even harder to remember somewhere that abandoned you. This rock musical about family and belonging, written by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine, returns to the Belvoir stage a year and a half after its world premiere.
Barbara (Ursula Yovich) is a fierce and wild woman with a raging fire burning against the world for hurting her, leaving her, and not protecting her when she needed to be. She uses her music to express the anger and frustration inside her with the often hesitant support of her cousin René (Elaine Crombie). Their relationship is a rocky one full of bickering, swearing, and racy innuendo but, with their mother in the hospital, the two have to try to stick together as they dive deep into their painful pasts.
Written as a rock musical, the production alternates between direct narration from Barbara and René, to real-time scenes, to performances with the Camp Dogs (Jessica Dunn, Sorcha Albuquerque, Michelle Vincent). The plot moves quickly from Sydney to Darwin to Katherine before Barbara’s facade of strength and untouchability completely disintegrates. Crombie’s characterisation as the stolid (in comparison to Barbara) and supportive sister keeping Barbara together while hiding her own struggles is deeply moving and cathartic to watch unravelling after the death of their mother. Crombie and Yovich have an acute dynamic on stage teetering between the sticky vulnerability of death, memories, and fear and the powerful love of shared history and understanding.
Leticia Cáceres’s direction seamlessly integrates the music with the narrative as two aspects inseparably linked within these characters. The big, emotive moments of the story are extended and supported by correlating songs (also written by Valentine and Yovich with Adm Ventoura). Then, the closing number, which brought Barbara’s lost brother Joseph (Troy Brady) into the mix, was an arresting message of hope, defiance, and love despite the anger of being Indigenous in Australia.
The lighting design from Karen Norris was exceptional in her manipulation and overlapping of two different genres of stage lighting, equally realist play and rock concert. Steve Toulmin’s sound design was also excellent as demonstrated most clearly in moments like Albuquerque’s guitar solo or quieter ballad moments from Barbara and René.
Barbara & the Camp Dogs is a story about family and all the things a shared history brings along with it: the things you don’t want to remember and the things you’ll never forget. As a piece of contemporary theatre it tells a uniquely Australian story about our national shared history and projected future. In the aftermath of heartbreak, it comes back to love, family, and forgiveness.
Barbara & the Camp Dogs is running at Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre from April 4th – 28th