Summer of the Seventeenth Doll | Melbourne Theatre CompanyLeft – Travis McMahon. Cover – Helen Thomson, Eloise Winestock. Photos – Jeff Busby

It is always interesting to see any play that is regarded as a classic, especially one that premiered over 55 years ago. The outcome is not always necessariy pleasant, but one is always hopeful. Time, after all, takes its toll on even some of the finest works.

This particular classic is Ray Lawler's quintessentially Australian Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, which not only became a huge success in this country in 1955, but subsequently went on to play accalaimed seasons in London and even New York. Many have regarded the work as marking a turning point for Australian drama.

To cut to the chase, this play and in particular this energetic production lives up to almost all expectations. Part of my contentment is that I saw this play through fresh eyes – having never experienced the Doll. I have never read the play, nor seen a previous production. I have nothing to compare it to.  

Roo and Barney have been returning to Melbourne each summer for sixteen years due to the annual lay-off from the cane cutting season. Each year they renew their relationships with two Carlton barmaids, Olive and Nancy. Their annual liasons have been carefree and fun, but things do change.

This year, Nancy has decided to find a more permanent situation and has married someone else. Roo and Barney are facing their own crises, while Olive seems to be the only one who lives in the past and refuses to see the realities of what is happening.

Into their midst, Olive has invited Pearl, mainly as a possible replacement for Nancy, but Pearl has learned from her own past mistakes and sees the picture that unfolds before her with the clearest of eyes.   

At almost three hours, this three-act ensemble piece never really misses a beat, even though all the action takes place in the same surroundings of a Carlton boarding house. Much of the credit for the pace and feel of the piece lies with the confident direction of Neil Armfield and the uncluttered design of Ralph Myers.

The cast perform strongly and really make the language, which has dated since the 50s, alive and often very funny. In particular, Robyn Nevin's grumpy Emma and Helen Thomson's Pearl are delightful. Thompson, in particular, not only milks every laugh with some of the best lines, but uses her body language and expressions to great effect.

The Doll is a wonderful piece of theatre, that isn't really about a moment in our past, but about the search for love and the disappointments, denial and heartbreak that can come to those who refuse to see the realities of the world around them.

My only concern lay with the ending and the final scenes, which unfortunately, do seem to belong to another period, and come across as melodramatic.     

This Doll however, shines brightly and leaves a wonderful glow after the lights have faded. It also makes me feel that I for one, would love to experience the trilogy that Lawler ended up writing,  that show these characters at an earlier age growing into the disillusioned souls that we witness here.  

Melbourne Theatre Company presents a Belvoir production
by Ray Lawler

Director Neil Armfield

Venue: The Arts Centre, Playhouse | 100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne
Dates: 12 January – 18 February, 2012
Bookings: | 03 8688 0800

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