Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre
May 9, 2018

Ray Lawler’s 1955 play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is often considered rather old fashioned: a naturalistic melodrama set in a single room over a few days during which each character speaks their mind or spars with their fellows. Black Swan’s production however brings out the more fantastic elements of the piece.

The drama follows Roo and Barney, who come to Melbourne during the break in cane-cutting work. During the “lay off,” they spend their time with two women – Olive, and this year Pearl – with whom the men live at a run-down Carlton boarding house managed by Olive’s mother, Emma. This year, though, it all comes unstuck.

Kelton Pell, Amy Mathews and Jacob Allan in Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Photo © Philip Gostelow

Director Adam Mitchell retains this hothouse atmosphere, and most of the piece is played fairly straight. Characters engage in intimate discussions whilst we peer at them as through an invisible fourth wall.

The design however establishes a more dreamy feel. Pearl notes several time how dusty and tatty the room and its furnishings are, but Bruce McKinven’s set consists of a cube cutaway at three sides, lined with fashionably Modernist 1950s wallpaper. These spacious, well-lit surrounds rest on a raised platform placed centre stage. Characters enter and exit by walking out of this unreal environment and traversing the edge of the undressed stage. These Expressionist effects are emphasised during scene changes, when lights in the walls suffuse the room with a hyperreal glow.

The acting too shifts between presenting a slice of life and a more mannered approach. At times, the characters come forward, orientate their bodies towards the audience and offer richly poetic epigrams. Amy Mathews as Olive for example murmurs about her life such that it comes to seem as an almost supernatural work of her imagination.

Summer of the Seventeenth DollKelton Pell, Mackenzie Dunn and Jacob Allan in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Photo © Philip Gostelow

Kelton Pell as Roo is particularly notable in such stylised depictions of the commonplace. He often places himself side on, head cocked, one arm pointed forward with two fingers marking out the line in front of his flat palm, while the opposite arm carves out a curve parallel to his torso. Pell uses very deliberate physical gestures (especially in the slowed down, stylised fight scene with Barney) whilst by contrast his low, rolling voice gives his speech a sparse, matter-of-fact quality.

Every year Roo brings Olive a kewpie doll. Lawler’s script has the play end with Roo smashing the seventeenth doll to pieces, after which Roo’s “body sags as the tremendous energy sustaining him through this last effort … drain[s] away” leaving him “like a beaten bull” and “Something breaks deep within him.”

Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll. Photo © Philip Gostelow

Pell’s interpretation of this climatic event is restrained. Pell destroys the doll in an almost private gesture and then drops onto the piano stool, more in contemplation than because he is broken. After stepping off the platform of their former dream-house, Roo presents a forcefully composed figure – as indeed does Olive when she exits earlier, preferring to return to her dreary job yet with her dreams still intact rather than sacrifice them for an unsatisfying conventional marriage.

Also notable is Alison Van Reeken as Pearl, Olive’s prim friend, brought in to replace Barney’s former lover. Pearl is often played as a prudish caricature, but Van Reeken’s hearty chuckle, or ability to relax her bearing as she collapses into the couch with a beer, makes for a wonderfully rich, lively figure.

Black Swan’s version builds on OzFrank’s dance-drama adaptation of 2002 (Doll Seventeen) and the elegantly spacious Belvoir Street production of 2011 to showcase Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as a work in which drab reality is recrafted into a dream-world rich, strange, and tragic.

Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is at the Heath Ledger Theatre in the State Theatre Centre May 5 – 20