Friday evening was another example of Melbourne’s unpredictable February weather. One day it’s too hot to move and the next, it’s deliciously pleasant. Friday night was one of those still, cool February evenings, accompanied by another cracking performance at the Malthouse, Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Its opening night sat appropriately nestled against the tail end of the spirited, Midsumma Festival and can be seen until March 3rd.

The show was sensational in its own right however, it would be remiss not to mention that it was elevated even more, by the atmosphere facilitated on the night by The Malthouse. I was uncharacteristically early for Barbara and the Camp Dogs, so as I waited for the show to begin, sparkling wine and good company in hand, I enjoyed activity at the microphone outside as some of the performers for Midsumma’s Malthouse lineup of Be Femme, Be Queer, Be you! warmed up their instruments and vocals. The pleasantness of the weather and the beauty of magic hour was giving me goose bumps but the serenity of the moment was juxtaposed by the fierce energy of the show I was about to see. Barbara and the Camp Dogs bared no resemblance to the still night, it was wild, uncomfortable in parts, confronting and thrilling.

The show was performance at its finest, with a compelling and neatly structured narrative arc behind the bold and truly spectacular voices of the cast, Ursula Yovich, Elaine Crombie and Troy Brady. The band that supported these powerful voices were equally thrilling to watch and listen to, Sorcha Albuquerque, Jessica Dunn and Michelle Vincent. They were powerful and bold and as punk rock as they were blues and soul. They treated the audience to a few moments of solo heaven, with particular reference to Sorcha’s wild and provocative guitar solo that had me making bold post-show statements with doubtful real life follow through, such as, “I think I’m going to take up electric guitar lessons”.

The lighting design, by Karen Norris, was impeccable and punctuated humour, drama and location moves throughout the show. I haven’t seen lighting used in that way for a long time and it was truly one of the more impressive aspects of the night. The set design by Stephen Curtis also elevated the story and while in the stalls you felt like you were at a rock concert, the couches and bar tables that formed a perimeter around the stage, gave it an intimate cabaret vibe, certainly for the patrons who occupied these seats but also for the visual pleasure of the audience at large.

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My only criticism of the show would be that while the play components were confronting and challenging and crucial, their inclusion meant that there were less songs and quite simply, I wanted to hear more because the music itself was so good. Further, it wasn’t until the third act that the audience met Troy Brady, the third cast member. Because of his late arrival to the story, it meant that we only really got to hear his beautiful voice twice and this was a shame as it was as haunting as it was lovely.

Ursula Yovich, playing the title role of Barbara was the strongest actor in the cast, displaying an impressive and at times, heart breaking emotional range. With this said, Elaine Crombie and Troy Brady’s voices were standouts for me. The story followed two Aboriginal sisters, Renee and Barbara who were on a journey to Darwin from Sydney to visit their dying mother in hospital. What the story uncovered in its road-trip vibe was the sad underbelly of cultural displacement and loss of identity. This is the kind of stuff that white people find confronting and uncomfortable. It’s a narrative that we don’t often hear from a female perspective either and it’s a pain and part of Australia that bourgeois, middle class urban centers aren’t exposed to on a regular basis, or in some cases, at all. It’s an important story to tell and one that we need to hear and engage with because it’s our history and it’s the truth.

Even though curtain call signals the end of the performance and people ultimately return to their respective lives, what remains is the fact that the audience has heard that story. That perspective has been shared and those present have bared witness to the pain of cultural displacement, albeit in the context of entertainment. Projects like Barbara and the Camp Dogs are a vital part of our storytelling and as it is on for close to a month, Malthouse has given people plenty of opportunity to see this tremendous piece of work.

Images: Brett Boardman