summer of the seventeenth doll

‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ by the Footscray playwright, Ray Lawler, is part of the ‘Doll Trilogy’. When the ‘17th Doll’ Premiered in Melbourne in 1955, it won the 34 yrs. old author, a local ‘Playwright Advisory Board’ award. Two years later in London, it won the ‘Play of the Year Award’. Two decades later, Lawler wrote two prequels to the ‘The Doll’ play. The first was set in 1937 just before World War 2, and was named ‘Kid Stakes’ (written in 1975), it tells the story of the first Kewpie doll gift. The second prequel was set in 1945, just after the War, and called ‘Other Times’ (written in 1976). Most of the characters in all three plays are the same. In 1952 Lawler also wrote ‘Ginger Megs – the Musical’. Ray, who is now 96 yrs. old, has had one of the famous Melbourne Southbank Theatres named after him. The Black Swan State Theatre Company are presenting this two and a half hour Australian classic for adults, in the comfortable 575-seat Heath Ledger Theatre, within the State Theatre Centre of WA, 182 William Street, Northbridge. The week time evening performances are at 6.30 pm on Mondays and Tuesdays and 7.30 the other nights. The play runs until Sunday 20th May when there is a 5.00 pm matinée. Lighting designer, Trent Suidgeest, had the nightmare task of lighting a stage, when the set has a ceiling. With the vertical ranks of lamps in the wings being employed most of the time, the room had a warm incandescent lamp glow. For special effects, the whole wall and ceiling were lit up from behind – through the wallpaper – and with the convenience of LED lighting, the room subtly changed colour and hue. The final fade to dark had these strips of lighting contract to darkness. This clever lighting was operated by Kirstie Smith who is on secondment. The sound designer and composer was Ben Collins. Throughout the play there were the very subtle sounds of crickets and cicadas, with the occasional bird cheep. Ben’s piece-de-la-resistance was the fireworks display, which came as an incontinence test for the audience – the whole house jumped. There were short pieces of specially written, fine incidental music, blended with famous popular pieces of the 1950s, such as ‘Begin the Beguine’ by clarinettist, Artie Shaw. The quality soundscape was operated by Sarah Roberts, who is also on secondment. The Stage Manager Michael Maclean was capably assisted by Tegan Sorenson.

Two harvesters, the brash Arthur ‘Barney’ Ibbot (Jacob Allan) and the reserved and shy, Rueben ‘Roo’ Webber (Kelton Pell) have just finished another seven months of boring and exceptionally hard work, cutting sugarcane in Queensland. They have arrived back in Melbourne for five months of rest, merriment and festivity. As always, they stay at the same boarding house, with the astute, but bossy and cantankerous, Emma Leech (Vivienne Garrett). Caring Roo has brought a traditional gift for Emma’s daughter, Olive (Amy Mathews). As for the last seventeen years, it is yet another kewpie doll to hang on the wall. Barney normally looks forward to seeing Nancy, but as she has married since his last visit, Olive has invited her best friend, Pearl Cunningham (Alison van Reeken) a prim and proper, unadventurous girl, to keep him company on this trip. The 22-year-old next door neighbour, Kathie ‘Bubba’ Ryan (Mackenzie Dunn), has over the years admired and longed for Olive and Nancy’s carefree lifestyle, and when another of the cane cutting team, Johnny Dowd (Michael Cameron) arrives in town, Bubba has her chance of affectionate, adult company.

The confronting fight sequence was convincing, and was directed by Andy Fraser. Costume designer, Bruce McKinven, captured the era perfectly. The men had wide bottomed trousers, and the old retro braces. Costume makers Jenny Edwards and Nicole Marrington have constructed a wonderful selection of printed cotton dresses, all with the Christian Dior style broad lapels and flared skirts. The multi-layered, organza lace petticoats, the forerunner to paper nylon, brought a smile. Pearl of course had a much more reserved, tight fitting, pale grey wool dress. The storyline shows what in the 1950s, was then a very unusual section of life; however today, with FIFO workers and their home lifestyle, the beautifully constructed script was showing a bit of age. Thankfully, director Adam Mitchell has shown immense skill in bringing out the hidden facets of the very different personalities, which have been suppressed for years by the play’s characters. In the past, I have seen this play performed, and ruined, by every trait and quality being hammered out. These actors presented their parts with great subtlety, feeding scraps of their personalities to the audience, with tiny facial expressions (Alison van Reeken was especially good), or just the walk and body language of Emma (Vivienne Garret) was magnificent. The chemistry between all of the actors was powerful. An exceptional version of a much-loved Aussie Classic.