Love, friendship, anniversaries, shattered hopes. Two blokes meet up with two female friends in Melbourne each year for a good lark; over the course of time, things change. Since 'The Doll' was first performed at the Union Theatre in Melbourne on 28 November 1955, it has become a classic of Australian theatre.

Paul Andrew speaks to actor Helen Thomson, who plays Pearl, about what makes the play evergreen.



Helen ThomsonA snappy snapshot of your biography so far?
Heck. I'm a graduate of the drama course at the USQ and then went on to work for the QTC as Abigail in The Crucible, directed by Roger Hodgman. Roger kindly invited me down to work at the MTC.

Two highlights of that time are Desdemona in Othello and acting opposite Geoffery Rush in The Dutch Courtesan. I moved to Sydney, where I am still based and have worked largely in the theatre, but also film and TV.

I received an AFI nomination for my work in Gettin' Square, it was a thrill to work opposite the English actor Timothy Spall. Some of my theatre highlights are (for STC) Arcadia, Judy Davis' production of The School for Scandal, God of Carnage and last years In the Next Room or the Vibrator play (for which I received a Helpmann nomination) and for Belvoir, Measure for Measure and of course Summer of the 17th Doll.

A personal and satisfying career highlight?
Perhaps it was being directed by Judy Davis in School for Scandal, for STC. I played the glorious Lady Sneerwell. It was a fabulous production in every way. Judy encouraged such excellence. Her instincts are so good.

Your earliest memory of seeing a stage play?
I grew up on a farm in central QLD and I was not a theatre goer and I'm sometimes surprised at how I fell into this career. But when I was about 14 years of age, my mother took me to a touring production of Steaming in Rockhampton at the Pilbeam theatre, which is a long two and half hour drive from home. I remember absolutely loving it and was so impressed by the world they had created.

It was Genevieve Lemon who played Dawn, the mentally handicapped daughter of one of the women who stood out for me most of all. I completely bought her character. When the play ended the character of Dawn literally melted away and this intelligent actress took a bow. I was so shocked and immediately thought – I want to do that.

What have you enjoyed most about working with Director Neil Armfield?
This is the first time I have worked with Neil and it has been a career long ambition to do so. Thankfully I can report that he is everything I had hoped for. He is very relaxed and calm. I've never heard him raise his voice or lose his cool, so the rehearsal room is fun. At the same time he is a perfectionist. Neil has an incredible eye for detail – so, get used to notes, notes, notes.

Neil is also very widely read and intelligent and curious about everything. You feel very supported in one of his shows.

Did you study The Doll during your USQ years?
I crewed the third year’s production of 'The Doll' when I was a first year at drama school. I absolutely loved it then as I do now. I remember Pearl as being starchy, which she is, but what I've discovered recently is that it’s a funny role too, it's really a brilliantly written role.

The play is set in Carlton in the summer of 1953, tell me about the production design from an actor’s point of view?
All the clothes and props are of the era, the set is too but it’s very pared back in design so that the emphasis is on the acting.

The Doll as it has become known over the years is considered one of the most influential plays in Australian theatre history?
Look, it's just a ripping yarn. It really is. All the characters are likeable and real. It's like a very satisfying 3 course meal.

What do you feel is the most enduring quality of the play for 2012 audiences?
Just the recognition that none of us have got our lives completely together, that we all struggle with life at times. Each of us, in our own way,  tries to find our own through line to happiness, just like Roo, Barney, Pearl and Olive do.

What do you feel are the most evergreen qualities of Pearl's character?
I don't know how Pearl would cope in the modern world, everyone is far too casual and their manners too lax! She does know how to laugh though and tell a good joke. She's also always very well turned out.

Tell me the details about the funniest moment during rehearsals?
It was trying earnestly to get through the Community Singing at the piano with Robyn Nevin (as Emma) without laughing. I have to sing flat, which makes Emma very cranky.


Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is now playing at the Arts Centre Melbourne, until February 18, 2012. Further details»



Image credit:-
Top Right – Helen Thomson. Photo – Heidrun Lohr

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