Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

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Summer of the Seventeenth Doll


Canecutters Roo and Barney have for the past seventeen years led a double life. Seven months of the year, its sweat and toil in the Queensland cane fields. Their reward? Five months of frivolity with barmaids Olive and Nancy in a Melbourne boarding house, swilling away their hard-earned dollars at Young and Jacksons.

But this year is different. Nancy has gotten married to another man and given up the game. Olive ropes in the uptight Pearl to take Nancy’s place, but try as they might everyone must acknowledge that the seemingly eternal summers are coming to an end. The garish kewpie dolls that line the walls, an annual gift from Roo and Barney, speak of the characters’ refusal to grow up, the accumulation of toys signifying the past that has amassed around them.

First produced by MTC in 1955, the Doll has returned to its theatrical home after being staged at Sydney’s Belvoir late last year. Directed by stalwart Neil Armfield (in his last production as Belvoir’s Artistic Director), the casting emphasises the strength of the play’s female characters. Alison Whyte shines as the eternal romantic Olive. Robyn Nevin is as inimitable as ever playing the crotchety matriarch Emma. Helen Thompson’s comic timing as the aspirational and moralistic Pearl is also excellent.

Ray Lawler’s script embraces the vernacular of the Antipodes — its off-colour slang, its absurd humour, its larrikin archetypes and its ocker accents. One of the first Australian plays to resist the cultural cringe, Lawler accepts our national specificity with a warmth that continues to radiate. This work may have defined our modern drama, but it is not just a history lesson in Australian theatre. 

Despite the production running almost three hours, time whips past much like it does for Lawler’s characters. The central theme of change’s inevitability, the way time catches up with all of us in the end, remains just as relevant today. As sure as the passing of the seasons, our carefree youths can’t last forever. Make sure to catch this production before the summer fades.