Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney
December 6, 2017

When Ursula Yovich and Elaine Crombie take to the stage and launch into a song called Look at the Sun, backed by a tight three-piece band, it’s clear from the get-go that Barbara and the Camp Dogs is going to rock. Their vocals are so strong, sexy and stirring, the pulse of the song so fierce and urgent.

The raw, emotional journey that the show then takes you on creeps up on you more slowly, building and building until it finally knocks you for six.

Barbara and the Camp DogsElaine Crombie and Ursula Yovich. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Written by Yovich and Alana Valentine (whose plays include Parramatta Girls, Run Rabbit Run and Ladies Day), with songs by Yovich, Valentine and Adm Ventoura), Barbara and the Camp Dogs centres on Barbara (Yovich) and René (Crombie), cousins who have grown up as sisters, who are both singers struggling to make ends meet.

Barbara is a rock chick with a band called the Camp Dogs, who sings in pubs, while René has a gig in a cover band at the local casino. Though close, they couldn’t be more different in temperament. Barbara is a tightly wound ball of anger: prickly, foul-mouthed, bolshie, frustrated at the racism and appalling treatment of Aboriginal people she encounters daily, and forever getting into fights, while hurting inside over her upbringing and feelings of abandonment.

René doesn’t mince words either and can deliver an equally colourful turn of phrase – she describes Barbara for example as “the arse-burning, eye-watering fart that you do in a room full of strangers…. the face-filling burp you make in a room full of haters” – but she has a natural warmth, generosity and equanimity about her.

When René hears that her mother Jill (who brought Barbara up when her own mother was unable to) is seriously ill in hospital in Darwin, she insists that they both go and visit her. Barbara is reluctant, not wanting to face things in her past, but René prevails. When they discover that Jill is no longer in the hospital they take a motorbike to Katherine, where some kind of reconciliation for Barbara becomes possible.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs is essentially a play with songs, using both direct address to the audience and dialogue scenes. Much of the emotion is expressed through the songs, which range from rock to funk to soul to ballads that tear at the heart.

Barbara and the Camp DogsElaine Crombie and Ursula Yovich. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Director Leticia Cáceres finds just the right ‘rock gig’m tone for the show, smoothing the sometimes slightly awkward transitions between text and song. Set designer Stephen Curtis has turned the stage into a grungy pub with manky orange carpet, a slightly raised stage for the band, and a blackboard on the wall behind them with Happy Hour and other specials chalked on it. There are also tables, chairs and sofas on stage where some audience members sit. Along the way there are several nifty make-shift touches like the motorbike, created from a light box and music case.

The band ­– bass guitarist and Musical Director Jessica Dunn, drummer Michelle Vincent and lead guitarist Debbie Yap – are on stage the entire time and are a terrifically tight unit. With costumes by Chloe Greaves, lighting by Karen Norris, and sound by Steve Toulmin, the staging creates the perfect atmosphere for the show.

Yovich and Crombie are both superb. Yovich unleashes such fierce, raw emotion, she looks understandably spent at the end, yet though her anger feels dangerous and terribly real, she manages to convey the aching hurt that Barbara is wrestling with. Crombie’s sassy ebullience and comic timing are a joy. They both have stunning voices, which blend together beautifully, voices that are full of emotion and soul. Yovich has a smoky quality to her lower register and channels what feels like centuries of pain in her ballads, and gee can she rock, while Crombie has a true soul diva quality to her soaring top notes.

Troy Brady plays a roadie and then gives a nicely understated performance as Barbara’s estranged brother Joseph. He’s no slouch as a singer either, joining Yovich and Crombie for a couple of numbers at the end including the final song Let in the Love.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs has plenty to say about the injustices and pervasive racism in Australia. In a blistering monologue towards the end of the play, when Barbara is in a paddy wagon having got drunk with strangers, she says: “You hate us ‘cause we’re black or pity us ‘cause we’re black. Which is worse? You whitefellas have an infection that makes you think that I really am different…. This is the meanest, pettiest, most ungenerous country in the world. Because at the heart of this country is a theft, and now the whole place crouches, waiting, calculating about when it is going to be stolen back from them.”

And yet although Barbara and the Camp Dogs pulses with anger and frustration, it has a huge, tender heart and an overwhelming sense of humanity, with room for hope at the end. There was a spontaneous standing ovation on opening night and more than a few tears.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs is produced by Belvoir in association with Vicki Gordon Music Productions Pty Ltd. It plays at Belvoir St Theatre until December 23