Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – Armfield’s iconic ‘Doll’ for the everyman

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Image by Jeff Busby

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is Australian theatre legend. Its place in the Australian psyche is prominent whether individuals have seen the play staged, or not. As a fixture in school curriculum and the most noted tipping point to the start of distinctly Australian voices on stage, it is expected we have some knowledge of it as a cultural icon. While it is all these things, it is also a great play. It is as witty and poignant as one wants from a playwright and Ray Lawler should be remembered for this, possibly more so than its cultural significance.

The story of Olive (Blazy Best) and Roo (Steve le Marquand) is a continual summer romance until the year they are without Barney’s (Travis McMahon) great love, Nancy. Pearl (Helen Thomson) is hoped to be her replacement. Olive’s mum, Emma (Robyn Nevin), is the ‘old fool’ who deftly removes ‘logs from eyes’. Bubba (Eloise Winestock) and Dowd (James Hoare) are the young, future laden reminders of what Olive and Roo were. The unravelling reveals the blind spots each guarded in order to hold on to the good they had.

The design of Ralph Myers (Set), Dale Ferguson (Costume) and Damien Cooper (Lighting) is true to the script with enough beauty and nostalgia to maintain interest. The very simple standouts out were the beautiful dresses and the gentle curtain dancing on a breeze over the single window on stage.

Robyn Nevin was the reason Neil Armfield decided to stage this production now, and we understand why. Nevin holds this production together and is as generous, commanding and unassuming on stage as her character, Emma, is in the play. Best, Nevin and Thomson are a wonderful trio who manage the caricature of the stereotype, rooted in reality and humanity, like they’ve been working together for years. Le Marquand and McMahon give intense performances grunting and roaring around the stage, which, at times leave the audience behind. While, Winestock and Hoare are a joy to watch in their respective roles.

The strength of Neil Armfield’s direction in this production is what we don’t notice. While some of the actors don’t seem to be in the same production (a common issue with short rehearsal time) the staging is fluid and very natural.

In The Foyer:
A series of subscribers declared it the best show they’ve seen at the Canberra Theatre Centre. Others hoped for more from this combination of theatre makers in terms of design and direction. Still, two encore bows would suggest a great night at the theatre.

Season dates: 14 – 17 March

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