With vague memories of high school drama studies, I was looking forward to seeing the Mates Theatre Genesis production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. It’s refreshing to see classic Australian plays onstage and characters with broad Aussie accents – something that would be great to see more often.
What I was hoping for was an engaging show with interesting characters, emotional character development and a few lighthearted moments. The reality was that while the show holds potential it did not deliver a solid audience experience on the night.
Before discussing the cast, first I must acknowledge that this script is HUGE. The volume of dialogue that the principal cast had to memorise is quite a task in itself, especially for amateur actors. Unfortunately, the cast had varying levels of success with delivering their lines, and while I’m sure this will continue to be polished during the show run it did detract from some key emotive moments that affected the audience engagement.
And this was the key issue with the production – we wanted to connect, but there was too many elements that broke the spell before it was truly cast.
With the bulk of the dialogue as well as being the key character that connects everyone together, Olive is a demanding role for even an experienced actor. Sharon Vassallo takes it on with commendable enthusiasm. Her nerves in Act One saw her rush through her dialogue and perhaps take an early cue or two, but by Act Two she hit her stride and started to bring more emotion and variance to her performance. But the time her heart is broken in Act Three we all felt it with her.
Suze Harper is exactly the type of actor I love seeing in amateur productions – there’s a lot of potential in her future and with a little more confidence she could become a great leading lady. Even as someone who is new to acting (that’s in the program, so it’s no secret!) she was able to make Pearl a likeable character – although at times I was confused as to her feelings towards Barney. But even so, I enjoyed her time on stage.
Speaking of Barney – the lovable lothario – Roy Nunn was wonderfully understated in a role that could have been easily overdone. His loyalty to Roo was honest and endearing. And what a great drunk! If I didn’t know better I’d think he had a keg behind stage for a spot of method acting!
Where Barney got the fun of being drunk and cheeky, his mate Roo was almost the polar opposite – serious and emotionally burdened from the start. Shane Webb played his role with a stoic stillness that worked so well to barely conceal the stillwaters that clearly ran deep. It also allowed for the variance in pace and tone that would catch your attention as easily in the subtle moments as with the stronger ones. At times it felt almost too restrained, but it matched nicely with the level of his fellow actors.
By far the audience favourite was Emma, thanks to Jan Nary being an absolute delight every moment she was onstage. Even when being stern and overbearing she stole every line without outshining her fellow castmates. The piano scene had the loudest laughs of the night, but personally I loved the more serious scene between Emma and Roo. Nary and Webb are truly talented actors, and I was left wishing they had more scenework together.
Rounding out the cast were Ashley Mullins as Bubba, and Dallas Fogarty as Johnny. They were sweet in their scenes together, and Mullins brought the youthful energy that her character needs to offset the older women in the play. Fogarty was competent enough, but largely his role was forgettable – potentially a victim of the fast pacing.
One thing was undeniable – every member of the cast was trying their heart out. You could feel their commitment to the production from start to finish, and that alone made me root for them through all the technical issues that let them down.
From the first moments of the play it was obvious that the lighting was far from adequate. There were large patches of the stage that were in shadow, even though these were places where the cast were delivering significant amounts of dialogue. It reminded me of when I’m too lazy to replace lightbulbs in my house, but then again I also haven’t invited 50 people into my living room to hear me speak. There were also late cues through the whole show that resulted in elongated moments of dead stage that I hope won’t be an issue in future shows.
The set design itself was nice, and certainly evoked the kind of kitsch feel that many 50’s style homes had. There was lots of space and differing levels for the actors to use, which made their movements feel quite natural. However, any action that took place on the verandah was largely masked by the mini-forest of pot plants that blocked the view of the majority of the audience. A few less pots and maybe some shorter plant choices would have had the same effect without the safari feel. And the scene changes seemed unnecessarily long for very minor prop and set adjustments, which slowed any emotive momentum that the actors worked so hard to build in the previous scenes.
It’s frustrating to see a hardworking cast let down by simple tech issues and some odd choices. These broken elements meant that the finale of the show felt clumsy and overdrawn instead of emotionally charged and engaging. With a tighter run time (my show clocked in at over three hours!) and some smoother tech work it would lift the production quality significantly.
Overall it was still a worthwhile show to see, but there are changes that need to have been put in place that would make it great. And I hope they’ve happened – because this cast deserves it.