Arts / Barney and Roo come home to the feminists

The cast, from left, Dene Kermond plays Barney; Jordan Best, Olive; Andrea Close, Pearl, and Craig Alexander as Roo. Photo by Shelly Higgs

ALMOST 62 years after it first hit the stage in Melbourne, Ray Lawler’s play “Summer of the 17th Doll” still bids fair for the title of “The Great Australian Play”.

Certainly we have seen other playwrights, not least David Williamson, who scored box office hits perhaps even surpassing “The Doll”, but few of them have truly captured the lives, the aspirations and the lingo of ordinary Aussies.

Now, just back from a trip to Monaco where Prince Albert described their performance in “Playhouse Creatures” as “superb”, Pigeonhole Theatre is returning to the stage of The Q with a revival of “The Doll”, directed by Karen Vickery.

A seasoned theatre historian who now works at the National Portrait Gallery, Vickery staged sample scenes from it two years ago during a tribute season to Lawler. So fresh were the words and characters that many people asked her to put on a full version and now she has.

“CityNews” caught up with Jordan Best, who plays the central role of barmaid Olive, just hours after she arrived back from Nice.

“The whole Monaco experience was like a group hallucination,” she says as she describes their meetings, their workshops with actors and directors from around the world and a dinner for 600 where the ceiling suddenly opened to the stars.

The heady feeling hasn’t quite worn off but there’s more excitement ahead; to her mind, Olive is one of the three great roles of this ilk, along with Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” All are driven by illusion, in Olive’s case the wish to keep hold of romance and excitement.

“You can’t say anything critical about Olive in front of me, because I love her so much,” Best says, admitting that some of her fellow stage characters, Emma and Pearl, constantly take shots at her.

“We at Pigeonhole have come to the conclusion that ‘The Doll’ is really about the women, although this play is usually done as a men’s story about Roo and Barney,” Best says.

She even describes Olive as “strong and feminist, prepared to live a not-so-respectable life in order to have her freedom”.

The play is set in a Melbourne boarding house during the “layoff season”, when cane cutters Barney and Roo descend from Queensland, like “two eagles flyin’ down out of the sun”, to enjoy five months of pleasure with their barmaid girlfriends before heading north again.

“Olive has the best of both worlds,” Best says.

“She lives her own life for seven months and then she gets to have a honeymoon, the first blush of love again… she just doesn’t want to become ordinary.”

The play will be performed in its period.

“Yes, I think the play is a product of its time,” says Best.

“The amazing thing is that it’s an Australian play in the 1950s that is not racist and not too misogynist. A powerful piece with not one bit in it that I would cut.”

Its female characters show bravery, even Emma, who runs a boarding house where her daughter is allowed to live with a man for five months, putting playwright Ray Lawler in a good light.

Best is thoroughly enjoying working with Craig Alexander as her love interest, Roo; Dene Kermond as Barney (first played by Lawler); Zoe Priest as Bubba and Alex Hoskison, reprising his Portrait Gallery appearance as Johnny Dowd.

She especially enjoys working with Andrea Close, who plays Pearl, the slightly more respectable barmaid who makes the plot tick. As for Liz Bradley as her dour mum Emma, who helped her found Pigeonhole, they’ve played mother and daughter before.

“My favourites are these gut-wrenching roles. I like something I can sink my teeth into and I’m fairly good at leaving it all behind when I go home,” says Best, checking with husband Jim, who confirms that he finds her easier to live with when she’s playing parts like that.

“I take them into my heart, but that may make me weird”, she says.

“Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Pigeonhole Theatre at The Q, Queanbeyan, September 20-30. Bookings to or 6285 6290.

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