|Chloe Bar at Young & Jackson's Hotel, Melbourne|
Director – Karen Vickery; Set Designer – Michael Sparks; Costume Designer – Fiona Leach; Lighting Designer – Cynthia Jolley-Rogers; Props – Imogen Thomas; Sound/Composer – Matt Webster.
Cast (in order of appearance):
Bubba – Zoe Priest; Pearl – Andrea Close; Olive – Jordan Best; Barney – Dene Kermond; Emma – Liz Bradley; Roo – Craig Alexander; Johnnie – Alex Hoskison
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Pigeonhole Theatre presents an excellent production of this significant Australian classic. Because of our current political turmoil, Lawler’s 1955 play – examining male mateship and the nature of marriage in what we would now call ‘fly in – fly out’ workplace arrangements – is essential viewing.
On the second night, the audience was disappointing: certainly not for our response to the performance, but only because the 346-seat theatre was no more than one-third full. Maybe people think of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as the classroom study which it has become, but like Shakespeare’s plays, Lawler’s work is full of real life, from Pearl’s opening put-down of Bubba – making you wonder about how she treats her own daughter who is about the same age as Bubba – to Olive’s absolute refusal to marry Roo and the complete collapse of their seventeen-year-long relationship as Roo destroys the last tinsel kewpie doll and goes off fruitpicking with Barney.
USA readers will recognise the similarity here with Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play, The Glass Menagerie. Whether Lawler was deliberately referencing that play, made so famous in the 1950 movie starring Gertrude Lawrence (Amanda), Jane Wyman (Laura), Arthur Kennedy (Tom) and Kirk Douglas (Jim), I don’t know.
But the device of the ‘gentleman caller’ and the tragic destruction of the delicate symbols of a woman’s hope (accidentally as Williams’ Laura and Jim dance by candle light before he announces his engagement to someone else; and accidentally as Lawler’s Roo and Barney fight in Olive’s lounge room, re-establishing their mateship but leaving Olive devastated) is theatrically as powerful in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as in The Glass Menagerie.
Please don’t watch the 1959 movie of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LY4o7vMpd6s ] with Ernest Borgnine as Roo, Anne Baxter as Olive, John Mills as Barney, Angela Lansbury as Pearl, Vincent Ball as Johnnie Dowd, Ethel Gabriel as Emma, Janette Craig as Bubba. For a start it’s set in Sydney, but as Michael Sparks clearly knows in his set design (quite similar to the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 1977 production) this play is definitely in Melbourne.
In the 1959 fil’m, the male characters speak imitation Australian, while the women are just too English. Lawler may have started the new naturalism in Australian playwriting, but maybe it needed a cringe reaction to the colonial imperialism in this British/Australian production to help stir the Marvellous Melbourne new wave of David Williamson in the 1960-70 period to get our real accents on stage.
But even the 1977 production had the women a bit too refined and glamorous for these old Australian barmaids at the local pub (not at Young & Jackson’s even, with the famous nude painting of Chloe https://www.youngandjacksons.com.au/chloe ).
Pigeonhole’s casting is perfect, both for the characters' physical features and for the actors’ characterisation skills. In the 1950s, after 17 years in the bar and cane cutting in Queensland, Olive, Roo and Barney began their lives back in the Australia of the 1930s, and Olive’s mother Emma in World War I. They speak and behave with the raucous accents I remember when I arrived in this godforsaken country in 1955. I was 14, and recognise the young woman Bubba (real name Cathy), just breaking into that 1950s sense of suburban refinement as high school education had begun to spread around the country after World War II. As for Pearl, with her own 18-year-old daughter ... well, I remember those mothers of constant judgement, protecting their daughters from working class boys (I was one myself, not yet imbued with middleclass morality).
In other words, director Karen Vickery got it right. Barney is short, muscular, bouncy, perceptive, laughing at every opportunity and drinking constantly to cover up his insecurities – yet surprisingly effective sexually, even with prim Pearl. Roo (short for Reuben, not Kangaroo) is large, a figure of physical strength now slightly past it, not too bright but trying to do the right thing, while also sensitive to being slighted. Olive is the no-nonsense mix of self-reliant woman running her life (but not always her similarly endowed mother), while needing a man in her life – but only on her terms. Bubba is not just ‘bubbly’ as she was as a three-year-old from next door, but is aware of a special feeling for the two men and wanting now to establish herself sexually.
Whereas Pearl knows where she stands as she leaves the house and the play after her attempt to possibly replace her dead husband with the highly unsuitable Barney, Roo knows he has to stick with the gang even though he is no longer their leader, Barney knows he must have Roo to keep himself on the steady and will have to accept that his old annual partner Nancy is and will remain married, and even Olive knows she has no choice but to put behind her Roo’s failure to match or even understand her needs, the play leaves Cathy (no longer Bubba) with no clear idea of where she can go from here.
The success of this production is to make the play more than Olive’s play, or Olive and Roo’s play, or Roo and Barney’s play, or Pearl’s play: this is Cathy’s play – leaving us to wonder about her future, as a young woman coming out into adult life with role models failing around her. This is one way in which this play, and particularly this production, is significant.
It is, as I alluded to at the top, also highly relevant to the present arguments about marriage equality. Why is it that Australia is so late to decide at the political level to make marriage for same-sex couples as normal as it is for opposite-sex couples? So many other ‘modern’ countries have come to the party, even some whose culture we might expect to be a barrier.
Lawler got it, 60 years ago. Roo and Barney are effectively married, though probably without sexual activity between them. Pearl wants sex and to be married to an appropriate man, perhaps even if she doesn’t love him. Olive wants a loving sexual relationship with a man without marriage, so that she can keep control of her life without being controlled by her man. Johnnie Dowd offers Cathy a chance (to go to the races for an afternoon) but she realises that was only a ploy more to do with Johnny showing his power over Roo, and was set up by Barney.
So, Bubba, growing up to be Cathy, is left absolutely confused. Her education at school seems to have been insignificant on personal and sexual relationships; her bringing-up in Emma’s house seems to have given her the old woman’s competence and a sense of responsibility; her experience of Olive (and Nancy’s) seasonal relationship with Roo and Barney has left her in the position of a child, and the seventeenth year with Pearl replacing Nancy and Roo’s leadership ending on the cane fields up north, leaves her with no confidence about how to go about the next stage of her life. She seems to seek something like love rather than mere sex, but plumps for Olive’s model rather than Nancy’s, which was to ‘escape’ as Pearl puts it, into marriage.
When I read the play, all those many years ago, I only half-recognised the nature of the tragedy. Today the voluntary non-binding survey so-called plebiscite on changing the marriage act to not only include ‘a man and a woman’ but any form of ‘same-sex’ couple highlights Bubba-Cathy’s confusion.
It is because this production is so well directed and acted that I think it is essential viewing. It won’t tell you which way to vote, but lets you into seeing the issues from angles that you may not have been aware of before, especially from the points of view of specifically Australian men and women.
Take advantage of Pigeonhole Theatre’s offering while you have the opportunity.