I first saw Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1957 in London, of all places. I remember feeling some pride in seeing the symbolic kewpie doll presiding over the New Theatre in the heart of the West End. June Jago’s performance as Olive has stayed with me over the years; Philip Hope-Wallace, the Guardian reviewer, described her as ‘all chin and elbows, but as genuine a dramatic actress as you could find’, which suggested an element of surprise that she should be ‘found’ in Australia. Jago had been in the original 1955 Union Rep production and placed her stamp on Olive: she was to be a hard act to follow. When The Doll came to London, it had already won itself a unique place in Australian drama, but there had been some concern about how the Brits would receive a play about rough canecutters and free-and-easy barmaids. But critics like Hope-Wallace – and the influential Kenneth Tynan – hailed ‘this harsh, cawing, strongly felt play’. The imperial imprimatur sealed the success of The Doll. Its later failure on Broadway could be dismissed as a judgement on American audiences rather than on the play.
An unsigned program note for the Belvoir production of the play presents an interesting perspective on the original Union Rep production:
Many accounts of the opening night go on about its rapturous reception, with the audience up and cheering and the cast taking endless curtain calls. This merely shows how memories can play tricks. In truth the first audience was a little bewildered. They hadn’t known at curtain rise whether this new Australian play was going to be a comedy or a drama, but early indications were comedy. They laughed heartily at the lively characters, the colourful language and especially the local references. Then in the second act, a little darkness crept in, but they laughed anyway … [At the end] the curtain fell to uncertain applause.
With good reviews the play did well enough for the two-week season to be extended for another week, but, with the benefit of much more rewriting and rehearsal, it was the 1956 Sydney season, under the auspices of the recently formed Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, that established The Doll as an Australian play to be reckoned with.
There have been many productions of The Doll over the years, but one of the strangest must have been that directed by Jean-Paul Mignon (1983 and 1988), whose Australian Nouveau Theatre (Anthill) in South Melbourne attracted audiences with its highly stylised and inventive productions of European classics. Alas, this attempt to apply a similar technique to Lawler’s text – which often gives very specific stage directions – demonstrated that The Doll could not survive this total subversion of its basic naturalism. It was an emotionally barren evening.
The Doll is technically an old-fashioned play: it comes in three acts, which see a masterly transition from broad comedy to searing drama. A contemporary playwright might have been tempted to use flashbacks and a more cinematic exposition, but in Lawler’s play the past is nevertheless powerfully present, particularly in the memories of Nancy, whose exodus from this unique lay-off arrangement to get married sets the scene for the seventeenth summer.
In the 1970s Lawler was tempted to write two prequels, Kid Stakes, about the first meeting of the two canecutters, Roo and Barney, with the barmaids, Olive and Nancy, and a bridging play, Other Times. The Melbourne Theatre Company presented the three plays in 1977, including performances of the entire trilogy on two Saturdays. It seemed an impressive achievement at the time, but since then the prequels have disappeared from view, though in the program of the present production Lawler is at pains to remind us of them, acknowledging the grant from the Australia Council that helped him develop The Doll Trilogy.
It may well be that Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is all the more powerful if we have not physically encountered Nancy in the earlier plays. She is the ghost who haunts the play. Bubba, the young woman from next door who has grown up through the sixteen summers, passes on photographs to Roo of Nancy’s wedding, which Olive refused to attend. Olive, much as she condemns what she sees as Nancy’s betrayal in surrendering to marriage, is full of warm memories of her and insists that she was ‘a real good sport’. Bubba assures Roo that Nancy was serious about her marriage, and ‘[d]idn’t do it, just to score a wedding ring’. Pearl concludes more prosaically that Nance must have ‘had her head screwed on the right way’.
Neil Armfield’s production, which comes from Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre, respects, and indeed exploits, the naturalism of The Doll. The set, however, influenced, I imagine, by the nature of the Belvoir space, comes as something of a shock. Lawler’s directions refer to ‘the riot of colour’ that disguises the shabbiness of the Carlton terrace house’s interior; there are also French windows opening onto an unseen side verandah dominated by ‘a tangle of plant life’. The overall effect, Lawler insists, ‘is not one of gloom, however, but of a glowing interior protected from the drab outside world by a shifting curtain of light-filtered greenery’. Ralph Myers’ set is austere to the point of minimalist. Contained within two drab-coloured walls, the sitting room has little more furniture than a table and chairs, a chaise longue and a piano, with a few pictures decorated with dusty kewpie dolls on the almost bare walls. There is only one window (through which, on a hot New Year’s Eve, Barney yells to Olive’s taciturn mum, Emma, ‘What are you doin’ out there?’, to be met by the immortal line, ‘Getting a sea breeze off the gutter. What d’you think?’). We might imagine that ‘the riot of colour’ and the ‘glowing interior’ are all in Olive’s mind: and indeed, late in the play, Olive admits to Pearl that ‘I’m blind to what I want to be’. What must be said is that Armfield’s production uses this wide space creatively and that our focus is always on the interaction between the characters. And the scene changes in the first two acts are cleverly managed so that the dynamic thrust of the play is not lost.
Armfield and his cast give us a marvellous ensemble piece, to which all the performances contribute. Yes, I might have wondered whether Helen Thomson’s Pearl was flirting with caricature in Act One, but she comes through impressively as the play progresses. When Pearl departs in Act Three, Lawler has her giving ‘the unresponsive Olive a clumsy hug’. In this production, the hug is sustained for several seconds before Pearl collects herself and walks out. One can read this as suggesting that Pearl, for all her snootiness, does have warm feelings for the bereft Olive; and, of course, they will be back working together again on Monday at the pub. Steve Le Marquand’s Roo struck me as stiffer than his bad back might have required, but he has the actorly guts to bring off the demanding climactic scene. Alison Whyte’s Olive is warm and loveable, passionate yet ultimately fragile; Travis McMahon has Barney, the likeable operator first played by Ray Lawler himself in 1955, down to a tee; and Robyn Nevin brings a dour authority to Emma, demonstrating how crucial the role is to the play. As Bubba and Johnny Dowd, Eloise Winestock and T.J. Power, with their charm and awkwardness, provide the youthful contrast.
What came through to me strongly in this performance was Lawler’s easy command of Australian vernacular, reminiscent in some ways, if the product of a very different social background, of Barry Humphries. (Incidentally, Lawler seems much more at home with his working-class Footscray origins than Humphries is with the suffocating gentility of his Camberwell.) Interestingly, it has been pointed out to me that Emma, presumably with Lawler’s permission, throws in a new line when she storms out of the singalong, ‘You’re all a bunch of amateurs’, a nod to Shasta Davies’ refrain in Sumner Locke Elliott’s Water under the Bridge, made famous by Robyn Nevin in the superb television miniseries (1980).
The classic status of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is confirmed by the emotional power of this production as the play moves inexorably to its tragic conclusion. Even when you know the text well, the third act still hits you in the face. And, remembering the bewildered reaction of the first audience in 1955, one realises that many today are seeing the play for the first time. At the performance I attended there was some embarrassed laughter when Olive falls to the floor and Roo gets down on his knees in his desperate attempt to get her to face reality.
And what are we left with in the end? Roo and Barney, diminished figures, reconciled out of necessity, limping off into the future – a backhanded salute to traditional mateship if ever there was one.
The Belvoir production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company at the Victorian Arts Centre Playhouse. Performance attended 18 January. The production moves to the Playhouse Theatre in Brisbane, 22 February–11 March (Queensland Theatre Company). ABR has ten signed copies of the fourth edition of the play (2011), courtesy of Currency Press and Belvoir, for new subscribers to the print edition.