Summer of the Seventeenth Doll | Belvoir

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll | BelvoirWhile some might describe this staging of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as a “revival”, the truth is, it’s never really been away. One of the few plays that would be inarguably considered a canonical classic of Australian drama, it is a text that has been studied in schools and subject to countless productions at every level of amateur and professional theatre. This is, however, the first high-profile, mainstage production to hit Sydney in a fair while, and as a Belvoir showcase featuring a cream-of-the-crop cast steered by “returning” director Neil Armfield, expectations have surely been running high.

Expectations which have been soundly met.

For those wondering if we really “needed” another crack at The Doll, if this is still a story which speaks to us today, this production provides an emphatic rebuttal to such qualms. For anyone raising the tiresomely overused “R-word”, questioning the play’s “relevance”, one could well counter with the equally oft-abused “U-word”, citing its surprisingly resilient universality. Having seen the play several times before but probably not for at least a decade, I was intrigued by the different reactions I had to it with the benefit of some distance. At the risk of cliché, I must admit I found myself now relating to the characters and their travails far more personally.

What really struck me, however, was how much less dated the play felt to me now. Having once reckoned the strains of 1950s sexual morality to be a major element of the play, looking at it afresh this aspect seemed surprisingly understated. Indeed, certain comments about “decency” aside, remarkably little felt old-fashioned in the play’s portrayal of the burnout faced by those indefinitely maintaining a purposely ill-defined commitment to an oft-separated yet notionally exclusive relationship, over the span of nearly two decades. While far more variations on intimate relationships than wedded heteronormative monogamy may now be considered acceptable than was imaginable in the Fifties, questions of balancing personal happiness with a sustainable lifestyle are perhaps timeless.

While by no means extolling the virtues of marriage per se, Ray Lawler’s story very much remains a powerful portrayal of characters who, each in their own way, cannot accept that carefree youth is now well behind them, and that the life they have made for themselves in the avoidance of traditional commitments has, by default, become an unsustainable commitment nonetheless. In many respects the uncertain, self-deluding relationships which our aging lovers find disintegrating around them feel more modern and “relevant” than perhaps ever before.

Neil Armfield has worked his customary magic with this excellent cast, on a Ralph Myers set which is on the one hand exquisite in its period detail and yet seems improbably spacious, perhaps hoping to evoke the widening emotional distances between the characters, but more likely a somewhat awkward concession to the conceit of using the stage-dock door to create a “real” window out onto the street. In fact, between Armfield directing, Dan Wyllie in a lead role and a set opening to the outside world, you would be forgiven for having involuntary flashbacks to Cloudstreet.

Wyllie is, unsurprisingly, rather splendid in the role of Barney, boisterous and crude yet irresistibly endearing in his increasingly pathetic way. It is a somewhat more manic portrayal of the character than you might be used to, but one which serves well as an even stronger counterpoint to Steve Le Marquand’s taciturn Roo which, in turn, is one of the most brooding presentations of the role I’ve seen. The tension between the two actors is palpable as the façade of their mateship shatters to reveal a codependency that has soured, possibly beyond hope of repair.

At the damaged emotional core of the play is Susie Porter’s pitch-perfect Olive, a woman-child for whom encroaching middle age has brought not wisdom but rather an ever deepening denial. It is a masterful performance, brassy yet tender, heartbreaking and pitiable in turn, wonderfully conveying a woman whose entire world is on the verge of collapse yet cannot see this until it is far too late.

In similarly stark relief to Olive, Helen Thomson was clearly an audience favourite as Pearl, her prissy rictus of social disapproval cracking with alternating bouts of disdainful mirth and genuine outrage. With her Julia Gillardesque inflections and finely honed comic timing, Thomson felt at times to be in some risk of undercutting the general gravity of the play and Porter’s more weighty performance in particular, yet between her and Wyllie the show obtained some perhaps necessary leavening humour into its ultimately rather tragic tale.

Any required gravitas was certainly provided by Robyn Nevin, perhaps the most convincing presentation of the irascible yet sagacious Emma in a long while. A role somewhat overlooked in other productions, Nevin’s work here is excellent, her initial comic relief giving way to words of wisdom generally unheeded. Rounding out the cast were TJ Power as an understated yet effective Johnnie Dowd, and a rather stunning rendition of Bubba by Yael Stone, who never fails to impress.

In a portrayal that one is sorely tempted to label definitive, Stone takes Bubba, a character who, much like Nevin’s Emma, has a tendency to pale in comparison to the central foursome, and yet in her hands becomes a captivating figure. She is a girl of irrepressible good nature teetering on the delayed brink of womanhood, infantilised beyond her years by her role as surrogate child to the self-infantalising Olive and her doting “Sugar Uncles”. Having grown up observing the Lay-Off seasons and romanticising them almost as badly as their participants, Bubba chafes at the need to find a romance of her own, looking set to follow down the same path that none of them realise has brought them all undone.

This is a truly marvelous cast with each role executed to great effect and yet, surprisingly, there seemed to be the faintest lack of chemistry between the ensemble as a whole, as though the individually terrific performances have not yet entirely meshed to the extent of convincingly portraying such long-term fellow travellers. Perhaps Armfield was seeking to highlight the newfound awkwardness between these characters who refuse to accept change, or maybe the show just needs to run in a bit, but it is a minor quibble amongst such otherwise excellent work.

There can be little doubt the show will be well received, as a particularly fine production of an enduringly strong play. Amidst the cheers of an opening night crowd (that seemed to comprise just about every actor in Sydney not themselves treading the boards at that exact moment), the third curtain call found Ray Lawler being dragged onstage by Robyn Nevin for a much deserved standing ovation.

Belvoir presents
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
by Ray Lawler

Director Neil Armfield

Venue: Upstairs Theatre | Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St Surry Hills NSW
Dates: 24 September - 13 November, 2011
Tickets: $59.00 – $39.00
Bookings: 02 9699 3444

Sign up for our newsletter

* indicates required