It’s 63 years since iconic Aussie play Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll was first enacted, starring the playwright, Ray Lawler as one of the main characters.
The tale of two sugar cane cutters and the women they love whenever they’re in town was an instant hit.
“Lawler has written a play so true to Australian thought and the Australian scene: we know their faces, their voices, we share their dreams, we understand their failures,” enthused The Argus, after the world premiere in Melbourne in1955.
Back then, Ray Lawler was 33 and played Barney, the lothario who hates to be tied down and seemingly symbolises everything that’s great about freedom.
The play went on to tour England and the US (though sadly the Americans were underwhelmed, unable to understand our accents, let alone our humour!)
Now 97 years young, Ray is understandably chuffed that his play remains so popular here after 63 summers.
But after all, good dialogue never really goes out of fashion. The play’s droll ‘Aussie’ humour, lightening up its more sobering reminders that nothing stays the same, or is as it seems, ensure it still resonates. This week at the Black Swan premiere, we were quickly immersed in the story of Barney and Roo (Jacob Allen and Kelton Pell respectively), and their relationships with barmaids Olive (Amy Mathews) and Pearl (Alison Van Reeken).
With Roo, Barney works up north seven months at a time. The men spends the five month off-season at the Melbourne home Roo’s faithful girlfriend Olive shares with crotchety mum Emma.
It’s an arrangement that’s worked well for years; but when the men rock up in this, the 17th lay-off season, too much has changed. Arguments, entanglements and wry observations from the anguished, but amusingly forthright, Aussie characters ensure there’s never a dull moment for any of us.
With his confident swagger and audacious pitch, Jacob Allan nails Barney, the non-committal ladykiller who refuses to grow up.
The talented Kelton Pell is convincing as Roo Webber, an inflexible and fiercely proud fellow who’s fallen on hard times and is struggling to deal with the fact that he’s no longer a virile young man.
Alison Van Reeken is Pearl personified: a conflicted woman struggling to maintain a level of dignity around Barney, who she’s crazy about, though she sees him as beneath her in many ways. Who doesn’t know somebody like Pearl?
And Amy Mathews is a sympathetic Olive, the optimistic and rather gullible girlfriend of Roo who really doesn’t dwell on what he does in the seven months he’s away each year, so long as he’s a blast when he’s with her.
WAAPA graduate Mackenzie Dunn holds her own as the endearing, newly grown-up, girl next door, Bubba Ryan, though her projection could perhaps improve; at times we strained to hear some of her lines.
Vivienne Garrett plays Emma, a terrific old grump, (who gets to deliver some of the play’s best lines), and WAAPA student Michael Cameron, debuting at Black Swan in his role as Roo’s fit young work rival Johnnie Dowd also gives a sterling performance. (No doubt he’ll be the next hot young Aussie actor to get signed up by a Hollywood agent.)
Director Adam Mitchell has done a fine job in bringing the play to life and extracting terrific performances from the cast.
Before doing so, he had the privilege of conversing with Ray Lawler and listening to his concepts about the characters, design and staging.
Ray still takes an active interest in his how and where his iconic play is performed and was delighted that Black Swan is the latest theatre company to take on his work.
Irene Jarzabek, Black Swan’s public relations manager, was thrilled to meet up with Ray in Melbourne in December. “He took a tram to the city to meet me at the art gallery,” she told The Starfish over a drink at opening night.
“Ray was particularly excited that Kelton Pell had been cast as Roo. Not only is Kelton one of WA’s best known and loved actors, this will mark the first time an Aboriginal actor has starred in the role.”
CAST INCLUDES: Jacob Allan, Michael Cameron, Mackenzie Dunn, Vivienne Garrett, Amy Mathews, Kelton Pell, Alison van Reeken.
DIRECTOR: Adam Mitchell
SET & COSTUME DESIGNER: Bruce McKinven, LIGHTING DESIGNER: Trent Suidgeest, COMPOSER/SOUND DESIGNER: Ben Collins, FIGHT DIRECTOR: Andy Fraser.
VENUE: HEATH LEDGER THEATRE
Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll runs at the Heath Ledger until May 20.
Photographs: Philip Gostelow
After the Show