Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
By Ray Lawler. State Theatre Company SA. April 24-May 16, 2015

South Australia’s State Theatre Company brings Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll vividly to life with its fine and untraditional production of the classic 1950’s Australian play.

‘The Doll’ is set in Carlton, Melbourne and is a tender and often raw observation of human relationships and how they inevitably change over the years. It’s a story about love and friendship, sadness and regret and the harsh realities of life, but ultimately it’s a stark affirmation that nothing lasts forever.

Pip Runciman’s set design is inspired and works perfectly on the Dunstan Playhouse stage to complement Director Geordie Brookman’s belief that the powerful human emotions within the story must be the focus; that they are so universal and enduring that the production needs only unobtrusive touches of the play’s originally intended 50’s setting to succeed.

The living/dining room of Olive Leech’s Carlton terrace house is denoted by three walls of translucent curtaining, a few steps to upstairs and a ceiling surround that dominates the setting like an overhanging cloud. Additional rooms and even the exterior are referenced abstractly by characters occasionally vaguely seen on the other side of these ‘walls’. This places stark focus on the apartment’s sparsely furnished living area as we discover what happens in this room every summer may not be a way of living but instead, a fragile charade.

An emerging and critically acclaimed playwright (The Good Son, Helen Back), Elena Carapetis is also a fine established actor and embodies her role as Olive Leech from the moment we see her briefly at the very start of the first act, with her back to the audience. She is surveying the living/dining room in which she has placed carefully arranged vases containing kewpie dolls on canes. This summer she will welcome Queensland boys Roo and Barney into the room again, just as she has every summer for sixteen years. The men will come down to be with her in Melbourne during their layoff season from the Queensland cane fields and Roo will bring her another doll to display, her seventeenth. This year though, the unravelling has begun; Barney’s former girlfriend will not be there.

Carapetis gives a towering performance as Olive, whose life for seventeen years has revolved around anticipating summer. She portrays Olive’s tempestuous relationship with Roo and the other protagonists brilliantly, especially when the shattering truth about the future dawns on her.

Lizzy Falkland is an audience favourite as Pearl Cunningham, layering her characterisation with a mix of tiny nuances and wonderful comic touches, so that we see a complicated, prim, private person, one who is lonely, damaged, often unexpectedly funny, but who is above all a protective mother. Pearl’s devastated outrage at the potential seduction of her daughter is intensely real.

Chris Pitman is fantastic as Roo Webber. We feel Roo’s anguish as he tries to manage the powder keg of emotions he feels about his changing work status, his deteriorating trust and friendship for Barney Ibbot, his love for Olive and his realisation that he must grow up at last and change his lifestyle.

Rory Walker is a fine Barney Ibbot, the loud-mouth larrikin who’ll sadly never change and who has left a long string of one night stands and fatherless children behind him. Barney’s shallow, thoughtless optimism is portrayed wonderfully.

Jacqy Phillips is exceptional and often hysterically funny as Emma Leech. Her Emma is in equal measure a shrill harridan and a woman of warm wisdom. A wonderful performance.

Annabel Matheson is a natural actor and a terrific new talent. She is delightful as Bubba Ryan, the young next door neighbor who has known Olive from childhood and who for years has been part of Olive’s summer ritual in preparation for the cane cutters’ arrival. Matheson strikes just the right note in portraying one of the changes now evolving in the finely balanced emotional dynamic within this group of people; Bubba is no longer a child, but is instead a desirable young woman.

Johnnie Dowd is a cocky young buck and having already turned Roo’s world upside down by usurping his leadership role in the cane fields, he arrives at Olive’s house after a pub crawl, knowing Roo will be there. Tim Overton plays Johnnie with an unsettling politeness that is subtly menacing and which serves to underscore that he poses a threat to the summer arrangements in more ways than is immediately clear.

Nigel Levings’ lighting design and composer Quentin Grant’s score are impeccable.

Near the conclusion of the play, with the kewpie doll-laden pretence of Olive’s seventeen-year summer fun disintegrating, the apartment’s ‘ceiling’ suddenly rises to brilliant effect, instantly creating a hollow, empty place where, clearly, no one can hide and nothing can ever be quite the same again.

This is an exceptional production. It reaches right into the essence of a play that some in today’s theatre community may perceive as an anachronism. Under the brilliant directorship of Geordie Brookman, State Theatre Company SA has shown ‘The Doll’ for what it really is; a superbly written study in the always contemporary power of human relationships.

Lesley Reed

Images: Elena Carapetis and Lizzy Falkland; Chris Pitman and Rory Walker, & Annabel Matheson, Jacqy Phillips, Lizzy Falkland, Rory Walker, Chris Pitman and Elena Carapetis. Photographer: Shane Reid. 

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