Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

Globe Theatre, 104 London St, Dunedin

04/12/2008 - 13/12/2008

Production Details

"Oh yes, that’s what they remind me of, she says, two eagles flyin’ down out of the sun and coming south every year for the mating season."

This classic Australian drama may have been written 50 years ago but its themes are timeless, the complexities of relationships between men and women, between parents and children.

The drama, set in a Melbourne suburb in 1953, portrays the unwinding fortunes of two sugar-cane cutters, Barney and Roo, who have traveled south to spend their annual five-month layoff in the house shared by Roo’s longtime girlfriend, Olive, and her mother, Emma.

Although Roo and Olive remain sweethearts after 17 years, Barney, a hard-drinking womanizer who boasts of his illegitimate children, has just been forsaken by his longtime companion. Olive, desperate to continue the tradition anyway, has recruited a widowed friend, Pearl to serve as a replacement.  

Festooned about the dingy living room are the dolls that Roo has brought to Olive every summer for the last 17 years. The gaudy toys symbolize both the longevity and flimsiness of their attachment. By turns sweet, funny, irritating and moving, this is a play that will linger in the memory long after the Christmas tinsel has faded.

The Globe Theatre
104 London St, Dunedin
(03) 477 3274
December 4-13, 2008
Times:  8pm every day except Sunday (2pm)

$15 general public;
$12 seniors, students, other unwaged people
$10 Globe members, parties of 10 or more people

Opening night special:  $8 all general public, $6 Globe members

BOOKINGS: Phone (03) 477 3274,  or door sales

CAST  (in order of appearance)
Bubba:  Kimberley Buchan
Pearl:  Barbara Walsh
Olive:  Katrina Yelavich
Barney:  Wyeth Chalmers
Emma:  Glenda Marshall
Roo:  Chris Horlock
Johnnie:  Malcolm Lay

Lighting:  Kathy Cresswell-Moorcock
Stage manager           :  Malcolm Lay
Set construction:  Andrew Cook
Poster:  Andrew Cook/ Rosemary Beresford
Photography:  Melanie Peters
Publicity:  Roslyn Nijenhuis
Front of house:  Globe Committee and friends 

Superb portrayals in Aussie classic

Review by Barbara Frame 12th Dec 2008

"Two eagles flyin’ down out of the sun and coming south every year for the mating season." This is how Olive describes the arrival of Roo and Barney, Queensland cane cutters who come to Melbourne for their five-month "lay-off."

For 16 years it’s been bliss. But this 17th year, despite Roo’s annual gift of a doll, things are difficult. The formula has stopped working, and everyone’s older.

Premiered in 1957, Ray Lawler’s play remains the great Australian classic, and the Globe’s production, directed by Brian Beresford, emphasises the strengths and failings of Aussie mateship and the uncertainties of relationships between men and women.

Although not all of the acting is excellent, the central characters are superbly portrayed. Katrina Yelavich brings out Olive’s determined optimism and shows us why her character believes that her unusual way of life is superior to conventional marriage. Chris Horlock, as Roo, demonstrates the combination of physical strength and sensitivity that Olive finds so attractive, as well as the self-doubt that contributes to the relationship’s disintegration.

Wyeth Chalmers is utterly convincing as Barney, the little Aussie charmer finding his desperation harder to conceal. As Pearl, whose patience with Barney runs out, Barbara Walsh is beautifully prim, although she lacks the brassy streak that the role really needs. Kimberley Buchan plays Bubba, the young next-door neighbour who inherits Olive’s idealism, with the right degree of naive grace.

Australian accents vary in credibility, but supply a good flavour. Andrew Cook’s set depicts, realistically and in detail, a shabby domestic interior in the 1950s. 

Half a century on, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll still has much to say. Highly recommended, but be quick – the season will finish on Saturday.


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Universal themes in culturally specific play

Review by Terry MacTavish 10th Dec 2008

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, "the single most important play in Australian theatrical history", burst onto the 1950s scene of predominantly well-made plays from Mother England, and caused a sensation.  Now standard study in Australian schools, it occupies much the same place as Look Back in Anger in Britain, or The Pohutukawa Tree in New Zealand.  It is seen as the first play to give Australians a sense of national identity.

Engaging with the characters forces us to reflect on the great pioneering tradition, and its mainstay, the tough larrikin hero, and of course, the worth of ‘mateship’, which was nearly written into the Australian constitution.  Close enough to NZ values to be relevant, you might assume, and you would be right.

The Globe production, under the confident direction of Brian Beresford, succeeds in conveying the relevance and power of the play, starting with the sinister doll on the poster, more Chucky than Kewpie.

Roo and Barney are two cane-cutters who come from Queensland to Melbourne once a year during the ‘lay-off’, for their regular R-and-R. To their girlfriends, Olive and Nancy, these bronzed hard men of Aussie outback legend are "eagles flying out of the sun", who make the local blokes look like a bunch of skinned rabbits. Compared with the marriages Olive knows, it’s five months of heaven, a time for living. But Nancy, like Bobby Magee, has tired of this after sixteen years and married a man who works in a bookshop.

The play opens with Olive’s desperate plan to hold onto the life she loves, by bringing in a woman to replace Nance in their cosy foursome, a barmaid called Pearl. And Pearl, a solo mum, has an unfortunate yearning for respectability.

Nor is all well with the outback heroes. Age is catching up with them. Roo, no longer the crack worker, faces competition from younger, stronger men, and his mate Barney is not the great lover and party animal he once was. Roo still brings his traditional gift, a tinselled kewpie doll on a cane, to add to Olive’s collection of yes, sixteen, but he too is beginning to think of abandoning the dream, settling into commonplace mediocrity, and making a respectable woman of Olive. The romantic dream that has sustained Olive is set to turn destructive.

Clearly this is more than a story about people facing inevitable change; it is an allegory of Australia’s own growing pains, and the agonised letting-go of the pioneering myth, the life full of possibility, glorious for women with the vision to see it and men with the courage to act it. Couched in the Oz vernacular, the play simmers with a subtext of sexual desperation and brutal male competitiveness.

The Globe’s cast manages to sustain the tension, and bursts at the last into explosive action.

As Roo, Chris Horlock appears to have the physique for a cane cutter, who needs to be as tough as a shearer, and this masculine strength is set against his real tenderness, touching in the intimate moments with Olive. Always compelling on stage, Horlock draws us into Roo’s tragedy, the terrible gulf in communication between men and women.

To a modern woman, it may well be depressing that Olive defines herself in relationship to a man – why can’t she go have her own adventure, for goodness’ sake? Fly into the sun herself?  But Katrina Yelavich engages our sympathy from the start, conveying Olive’s excitement at Roo’s imminent arrival, and her pain in the destruction of her dream.

In many ways it is the sociable Barney who animates the play, likeable despite his infuriating arrogance. "It takes a special sort of woman to understand a bloke like me." Wyeth Chalmers plays him with unflagging energy, a confident swaggering little cock-sparrow of a man whose very braces deserve programme credit.

As Pearl, the barmaid who is supposed to fall at his feet, Barbara Walsh is credibly uptight and prissy. Her worship of convention forms a nice contrast to Olive’s more earthy, passionate nature.

Bubba, the girl from next-door who has grown up believing in the glamour of ‘the lay-off’, is played winsomely by Kimberley Buchan: a fresh-faced, wide-eyed innocent, who is yet woman enough to choose as Olive did. The cycle begins again …

As Johnnie, the young cane cutter who is supplanting Roo, Malcolm Lay lacks the necessary power, and though quite sweet in his awkward courting of Bubba, he fails to convince as a threat to Roo’s virility or livelihood. Glenda Marshall, as Olive’s grasping mum Emma, provides some moments of welcome light relief, especially during the fun sing-along of Waltzing Matilda.

The energy and commitment of the actors are commendable, though they need to watch a tendency to shout in moments of heightened passion. The pace is cracking, the violence well-choreographed, and the realism enhanced by one of Andrew Cook’s fantastic sets, which serves the cast exceptionally well.

Altogether it is brilliant to have an opportunity to see why "the greatest Australian play of all", as theatre historians and critics have dubbed it, has become a classic.  The characters are original, the themes universal – who doesn’t need a dream to cling to? – yet it screams "Australia". 

Despite the merest of flirtations with the accent, the actors achieve an authentic Australian flavour. My mother, who lived through the 1940s as a dancer in Sydney, swore she could "smell the kookaburras."


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