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SOMETIMES a theatre production materialises as if out of some unknown ether and simply can take the audience on an emotional ride through cultural and personal experience, leaving them adrift on that little desert island where they can only ponder what was on the other side of that distant and elusive horizon! This is one such production.
“Summer of the Seventeenth Doll” has been around as if forever in the Australian Theatre psyche. Many will have studied it at school or at university. This production demonstrates with precise clarity why this is so. Karen Vickery has created a very clearly structured and fleshed-out interpretation of the play; ably performed with total commitment and mature dexterity by a highly professional cast. This team mines the source of human existence as people carve out dreams and fantasies in an otherwise cruel and unforgiving universe of numbing survival and vague hopes.
Pearl, played by Andrea Close, sums up this duality of survival and hope in the way she identifies the choices before her daughter; expressing the aspiration that her daughter, not be drawn into the illusory world, lived out in Olive’s house. She sees the tragedy unfolding for her barmaid friend long before it is obvious for Olive. Pearl is tempted by a persistent Barney, played with extraordinary flair by Dene Kermond, to enter the seventeen-year long escape. Invited into Olive’s male-dominated space, Pearl is sceptical and then certain in her observations. The play is thus given a very healthy contradiction that avoids sentimentality.
All the while Liz Bradley’s wise fool of a mother circles the action with barbs and insights that she never tries to force on anyone. Bradleys performance utilizes the best possibilities of realism and style to provide both comic relief and wisdom worthy of Shakespeare. Her interactions with a defeated Roo, played with an exalted realism by Craig Alexander, is a reminder for the need for empathy within the absurdity people’s actions. She sees clearly how Roo has sabotaged his life and yet she is willing to provide a degree of subsistence to allow him to survive to the next day.
The ebb and flow of the two men’s relationship with each other provides both comic and tragic moments; yet their development unites them in an emptiness of existential ennui capturing the essence of an Australiana mostly in denial. This is testimony to the power of the writing, the deft direction and superb performing instincts of Kermond and Alexander.
Zoe Priest’s Bubba holds the chaotic relationships together as a catalyst for change. She is seemingly spritely and naïve; yet Priest’s control of the performance allows the character to bridge the two worlds of fantasy and reality. She needs both and aspires to more questioning potential than that of her neighbour, Olive. She is intrigued and flattered by the interest of Alex Hoskison’s attractive Johnnie; possibly a young version of Roo. She is cautioned by a repentant Barney. However, we must wonder if the cycle of desperation is to be broken or continued!
At the centre of the play Olive is played with an incredible life-force by Jordan Best. She infuses each scene with a catastrophic whirling of energy born of a need to deflect the bind of olive’s own circumstance. Best sums up Olive’s reality in the way she responds to the final question put to her by a failing Roo. To make the moment work required the consistent building of complex actions and reactions throughout the entire play. This was achieved by Best to perfection.
“Summer of the Seventeenth Doll” provides a rare and theatrically realistic glimpse into an Australian working-class psyche that is not simply from the past but is still ever-present. It is done with empathy and without a mocking paternalism that so often accompanies such attempts. For all this, it is still entertaining and highly worth its two hours of theatrical presentation.