Endless summers

PLAYWRIGHT Ray Lawler changed the face of Australia theatre in 1953 with Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.

For the first time in mainstream theatre we had a warts-and-all portrayal of working class life in Melbourne.

“A  play so superbly true to Australian thought and the Australian scene…” read the review in The Argus following the play’s premiere in Melbourne.

“We know their faces, their voices, we share their dreams, we understand their failures.”

More than 50 years on from the premiere, Black Swan’s production of Summer of the 17th Doll at the State Theatre retains the power, passion and personal tragedy of the original.

• Jacob Allan and Kelton Pell get physical in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Photos by Philip Gostelow

The play is especially relevant given the FIFO culture in WA, and Summer’s emotionally-charged denouement will leave you breathless.

For nearly two decades Roo (Kelton Pell) and Barney (Jacob Allan) have spent seven months of the year cane cutting in Queensland and the other five partying in Melbourne with Olive (Amy Mathews) and Nancy.

But when Roo arrives in Melbourne for their latest bender, everything is different.

Nancy has seen the writing on the wall and left the quartet to marry a “normal” bloke and settle down, while Roo has quit cane cutting, after being shown up by a younger, fitter newbie.

Barney didn’t walk out with him and the two are hardly speaking.

Pell is superb in the role of a man who realises his youth has slipped away and he has nothing to show for it.

And Barney still boasts of sexual prowess he no longer possesses.

Caught in a perennial adolescence, Olive tries to re-capture the hedonism of previous off-seasons, and invites widow Pearl (Alison van Reeken) into the group—telling her that five months of partying is better than a year of marriage.

• Jacob Allan, Amy Mathews, Vivienne Garrett and Kelton Pell in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll


The straight-laced Pearl is skeptical, but she’s lonely and turns up with her suitcases ready to stay.

It’s not long before the cracks show and things come to a head when a cocky young cane cutter, Johnny (Michael Cameron), turns up unexpectedly.

He exacerbates an already tense situation by inviting Olive’s 22-year-old neighbour Bubba (McKenzie Dunn) to a day at the races with the group.

Roo and Barney warn her against Johnny, but Bubba’s grown up watching 16 years of hedonism and is keen to start enjoying her own.

Roo proposes to Olive, setting off a maelstrom as she rejects him, wailing plaintively ”I want what I had” as she storms out.

It’s heady stuff played magnificently by a stellar cast.

Sunday May 20 is the last night so get in quick or miss out on this Australian classic.


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