Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
Black Swan State Theatre Company
Heath Ledger Theatre
Review: Jan Hallam

This year The Doll is 63 and its journey through our cultural landscape has been every bit as varied and challenging as the cane cutting seasons of its male protagonist and antagonist, Roo and Barney. Some are rich and ripe; others are lean and hard, the latter most notably in New York’s 1958 production. For the average New York audience back then, it was one ‘strewth’ too far. But fill the stage with an all-black cast of actors
in 1967 in the same location and the boys’ hard work reaped a bumper harvest.
How fascinating to contemplate the power of this extraordinary play.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.Kelton Pell.Amy Mathews Image Philip Gostelow.
Kelton Pell (Roo) and Amy Mathews (Olive) in BSSTC’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

Most Australians have experienced the Ray Lawler classic in their school days when it could be broken down into examinable portions: the challenging of gender stereotypes, the weave and weft of 1950’s white Australian society and the pull of mateship.

In the theatre on a May night in 2018, it became so much more. BSSTC’s production, securely helmed by director Adam Mitchell, is achingly authentic. It speaks in tongues that many Australians have forgotten, or have never known; those voices that have been drowned out by the jabber of American culture and our poor attempts at replication.

Bruce McKinven’s sets and costumes, Ben Collins use of Ella Fitzgerald’s buttery tones (proving, ironically, how long US cultural imperialism has been dominating our imaginations) and a magnificent ensemble of actors have captured more than
time and place of Lawler’s 1950’s suburban Melbourne. They have captured an essence of us. But is it us as we were, or does this spirit run free?

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Amy Mathews and Alison van Reeken. Image Philip Gostelow
Mathews and Alison van Reeken (Pearl)

In the great vox pop that is the queue for the women’s loo at interval, an older woman was overheard regaling her young companion, “it’s like listening to my grandparents talk over the kitchen table”. The younger woman shrugged her shoulders with little conviction; perhaps not her grandparents, I’m guessing?

Whose voices are these?

When you look at Roo’s ravaged face as he tells his good-time girl Olive Leech that he has lost his cane-cutting mojo and therefore his livelihood; that he won’t be going back to Queensland for the next season; that there won’t be an end to the seventeenth lay-off; you can see the pain of tens of thousands of workers in similar situations not 50 years ago, but yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Stealing over Olive’s face, where once reigned a smile of immutable good times, suddenly there’s horror and dread of this new, utterly conventional reality. Her mother Emma says she needs to ‘grow up’ but Olive just needs to be free, and Lawler does just that.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.Jacob Allan.Amy Mathews.Vivienne Garrett. Kelton Pell. Image Philip Gostelow

How can any of us not share these characters’ uncertain futures?

The performances from the cast of seven were wonderful. Prising their names away from their characters’ feels a little bit like breaking up your best friends – they need to be together. But we also need to celebrate the skill and craft of Amy Mathews (Olive), Kelton Pell (Roo), Jacob Allan (Barney), Vivienne Garrett (Emma), Mackenzie Dunn (Bubba), Alison van Reeken (Pearl) and Michael Cameron (Johnnie) for delivering 130 minutes of heart-stopping drama.

The deep effect Mitchell’s production has had on this reviewer is profound. I didn’t expect to be reassessing what I mean when I say ‘Australian’ by sitting in a theatre witnessing Summer of the Seventeenth Doll for the fourth time. But, then again, perhaps I didn’t think it was a play for these times. I was very wrong. This has everything to do about us, now, tomorrow and the next day. No one should miss seeing it.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll continues until 20th May.