Times change, people grow older, and nothing lasts forever. Ray Lawler’s 1950s classic remains a mainstay of the Australian theatre repertoire for its dry-eyed portrayal of the end of the boom time. In this most recent reprisal, Barney, Roo, Olive, and Pearl serve as reminders of how thin the facade of endless growth is and the consequences of failing to see the reality underneath.
For years Emma (played in this performance by Lois Marsh but cast as Liz Grindley), ran a boarding house in Melbourne with her daughter Olive (Jodine Muir) and every year they welcomed the men from the cane fields as they travelled south from Queensland for the lay-off between picking seasons. Seventeen years ago Olive and best friend Nancy struck-up a particular relationship with Roo (Martin Grelis) and Barney (Harley Connor) that began a long tradition between the four of them but, this year is the first since Nancy got married and moved away, irreparably unbalancing the five-months-on, seven-months-off deal all four had come to rely on. When Roo and Barney arrive after an already rough picking season to find Pearl (Grace Swadling) instead of Nancy and their beloved kiddo Bubba (Heather Tleige) all grown, it seems the tide has finally turned on their lay-off tradition. With the dual pressure of so many wonderful summers behind them and the expectations for them to settle down into a normal life, the tone of Lawler’s script is tense and brittle as the characters encounter an approaching future they’d hoped to avoid forever.
Director John Grinston honoured the emotional and social impact of Lawler’s script with a faithful rendition of the original era and solid characterisation. Amongst the shabby interior of Emma’s house with peeling paint and cheap baubles covering the worn-out furniture in Tom Fahy’s set design, the characters stood tall with commendable commitment to self-delusion. At the same time, the simple lighting design by Mehran Mortezaei and the swing music punctuating the scenes as selected by sound designer Michael Schell recreated the smiling, warm atmosphere that Lawler hoped to undermine. Throughout the production, Grinston’s penchant for honest, decent direction made the characters’ demise all the more compelling.
Alongside the grumpy Emma, Swadling’s Pearl represented the prim and proper perspective of respectable society as opposed to the live and let live approach from Olive, Roo, and Barney. Though, Swadling at times allowed a glimpse into the more complicated positioning of Pearl as a single mother with pressing security concerns not addressed by that same prim and proper society. If Emma and Pearl figured as the past, then Tleige’s Bubba was the future with her open desire to determine her own destiny in pursuit of work at Woolworth’s and a relationship with upstart cane picker Johnnie Dowd (Hamish MacDonald). But the central thrust of the production came from the trio of Olive, Roo, and Barney as they attempt to ring every last drop of fun out of their lives despite changing times. Muir’s Olive was particularly empathetic as a woman caught in the middle of what she wants and what she can have. The push and pull of her relationship with Roo was beautifully and perceptively portrayed by the pair in their final conversation. But third-wheel Barney cannot be overlooked and Connor’s performance was particularly impressive for how his easy, believable characterisation of the fading womaniser worked like glue to hold the production together. Connor cleverly balanced Barney’s sensitivity against his drunkenness for a rare nuanced portrayal of the average Australian bloke. As a trio, Muir, Grelis, and Connor expertly navigated the tension of Lawler’s script for a sound overall performance.
It’s so easy to get taken in by the idea that what goes up can keep going up, so it takes some bravery to see the way the wind’s blowing, especially if it means saying goodbye to life-long friends like Nancy did. Maybe it’s called growing up or just being prepared, but it’s a pattern that keeps repeating and we’d do well to heed the warning.
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is running at the Genesian Theatre from July 16th – August 20th
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