Ray Lawler wrote the iconic Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in the fifties, but that doesn’t mean the spirit has gone out of it. It’s hard to say just what has kept audiences gob-smacked for over half a decade – perhaps it is the stark realism, or the setting of endless, grinding Summer or the sheer emotional density of the thing – but there’s no denying Summer of the Seventeenth Doll still stands as one of Australia’s most praise-worthy plays.
So who better to bring this play back to the Dunstan Playhouse almost twenty years after its last showing there than the State Theatre Company of South Australia. Director Geordie Brookman has taken up the challenge and pulled it off with aplomb, capturing the essence of the original play but also masterfully and subtly re-shaping it to engage a 2015 audience.
Every Summer, for the past 17 years, Olive Leech (Elena Carapetis) opens her door to Roo (Chris Pitman) and Barney (Rory Walker), who every year bring with them a Kewpie doll as a souvenir. This year, however, things are different. Olive invites her prim-and-proper friend Pearl (Lizzy Falkland) to meet the rough-and-tumble boys, who are caught in a downward spiral that threatens to shatter the peaceful traditions of the household.
There’s no doubt that Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is masterfully written, full of intricacies and emotions that make the play feel “real” (if a little comedicly exaggerated). It is also full of incredible wit and dry hilarity, which is something I’m sure you might not expect from the promotional posters or blurbs. Pearl, despite being fairly straight-laced, became a crowd favourite as she battled to uphold decorum in the midst of beers, bar-songs and sun-burnt Aussie blokes.
All the other players did marvelous jobs with their characters. Each managed to inject some unique and interesting personality into their roles. Though I have to admit I was less impressed by Pitman’s Roo, who came off fairly scripted and wooden… well, not wooden exactly, more rubbery and stiff, less energetic and assured than the rest of the crew. While this makes sense for the character, there was something about the performance that seemed a little out-of-tune.
The set and lighting (designed by Pip Runciman and Nigel Levings respectively) are the elements that really bring this performance into the new century and make it something spectacular. While every scene is set in a single room, a clever arrangement of lights are used to change the mood to the beat of the play and a series of thin curtains all around the stage work to create an extra layer of space for action to happen in. It’s really amazing how these two small things can dramatically change the whole performance, even second by second.
The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a brilliantly simple, realistic and emotive play that highlights the beauty in the mundane. A real triumph in the twin fields of writing and performance.
Reviewed by James Rudd
Your Twitter: @james_wrr
Venue: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Street
Season: 24 April – 16 May
Duration: 2 Hours and 45 Minutes
Tickets: $31 – $58
Bookings: Through Bass http://www.bass.net.au/events/stc-summer-of-the-seventeenth-doll.aspx
State Theatre Company Official Page http://www.statetheatrecompany.com.au/