Ray Lawler’s Australian classic still resonates over 60 years after its debut at the Union Theatre on 28 November 1955. Multi-award winning and prolific director, Adam Mitchell, has assembled an outstanding cast and creatives for Black Swan’s first production of perhaps the most quintessential Australian play. Under the skilful eye and guiding hand of Mitchell, the production oscillates between moments of tenderness, fiery exchanges; and humorous interactions that deliver the dry and often hilarious dialogue, particularly from the characters Emma and Barney. Equally, the distinction of each character is skilfully portrayed by the company of actors. This production of The Doll (as is it warmly referred) is an intelligent portrayal of people’s attitudes to change and how the pressures and mores of the workplace and home environments can upend the simplest of desires and lifestyles.
The play is set in the 1950s and centres around the suburban Melbourne home of Emma and Olive who are mother and daughter. The fact that Olive is in her late thirties and still lives at home suggests a refusal to transition into the tradition of marriage and children, which was particularly predictable in the 1950s. Indeed, Olive expresses her scorn for those who settle for a life of domesticity. Olive’s modest desire is to preserve the cyclical visits from her boyfriend Roo, who for seven months of the year works as a sugar cane cutter on the plantations in North Queensland, and then spends the five months of the “lay-off” season with Olive in Melbourne.
As the audience take their seats we can see the beautifully realised set by Bruce McKinven. It contains furniture from the period, and the wallpaper pattern that extends onto the floor and ceiling was a stroke of genius to accentuate the space. The functionality of the design is flawless, however, I would’ve liked to have seen traces of the sixteen years of grime that has built up behind the dolls when they are removed from the walls, and this would’ve tied in with Olive’s description of the dolls when she removes them.
The play can be broken down into a series of changes and shifts. Some of these changes are given as exposition, having happened since the last “lay-off” season, and some materialise throughout the play. The play opens on Bubba (played by recent WAAPA graduate Mackenzie Dunn) and Pearl (played by Alison van Reeken) who are discussing the recent wedding of Nancy, (Barney’s girlfriend for the past 16 years), who evidently met another man and got married. We learn that, in an attempt to retain the two-couple dynamic, Olive has asked her workmate from the pub, Pearl, to be Barney’s ‘companion’ during the “lay-off” season. Dunn beautifully captures the innocence and vitality of Bubba and effortlessly transitions into the determined young woman we see toward the end of the play. Dunn proves that she can hold her own amongst some of Australia’s most experienced actors. As a recent graduate from the Musical Theatre course at WAAPA, Dunn’s performance as Bubba demonstrates her versatility and ability as a fine dramatic actor. I look forward to seeing Dunn in Black Swan’s production of Assassins in June.
It is always a pleasure to watch Alison van Reeken who never fails to deliver a nuanced and intelligent performance. Pearl is a
character that can easily fall into the realm of caricature but in van Reeken’s hands she becomes a complex woman, full of contradictions and possibilities. Similarly, the character of Emma could be played as comic relief, and though she has many funny lines, Vivienne Garrett’s performance again showed that she is a fine character actor who embodies the role.
Mitchell quite rightly centres the development of the play on the development of Olive’s character. Olive’s desire to keep the status quo and to look at her lifestyle through rose-coloured glasses creates the tension and propels the dramatic action. Amy Mathews’ beautifully measured performance is fascinating to watch as she tries to navigate and negate the changes and shifts. Mathews’ gradual transition from her buoyant demeanour, presented at the beginning of the play, to a desperate and distraught woman who is trying to cling to a modest dream, is heartbreaking. Furthermore, Mathews’ chemistry with the entire cast helped to ground the play. In particular, her chemistry with Kelton Pell, who played Roo Webber, was palpable. Their first gaze and kiss was electrifying and these moments continued throughout.
Pell found the complexities of Roo and it was captivating to see the changes in his demeanour from fierce, to loving, but always carrying the plight of his situation in his body language. It brought to mind the idea of people, particularly those doing hard physical work, having to work until they are 70 years old. The younger workers, Barney and Johnnie Dowd have yet to feel the years of back-breaking work catching up to them and the worries that realisation brings. Jacob Allan’s portrayal of Barney highlights this immaturity in the character, that, for the moment, he is able to dodge the ramifications of the years of being an itinerant worker. But we get a sense that those consequences will soon be nipping at his heels. Likewise, Lawson’s decision to bring in the young stud with Johnnie Dowd’s character further emphasises Roo’s and Barney’s predicament. Michael Cameron has a strong presence and was able to show Dowd’s confidence and dominance over the ailing Roo, while at the same time, demonstrating the naiveté of youth.
Trent Suidgeest’s lighting design was gentle and unobtrusive, but the fireworks display gave him an opportunity to shine. It was very realistic and mixed well with the sound effects. Ben Collins’ sound design enhanced the liveliness of the first half, treating the audience to a bit of jazz, and worked particularly well when the actors were involved in the scene change after the first night. Tying in with Emma’s hobby of choral singing, Collins includes a poignant choral piece to add to the sombre atmosphere that creeps into the second half. Thanks to Fight Director Andy Fraser, the fight sequence, which is usually played offstage, gave the energy and intensity to the climactic scene that it needed.
I’m very glad to see that Black Swan is framing The Doll around the DIDO and FIFO lifestyles that many Australians choose to live. Lawson’s play highlights the pros and cons of this lifestyle that is perhaps unsustainable and not without collateral damage; yet it can be full of fun, friendship and love. Ultimately, the play reveals the immaturity of these characters who try to resist reality and imposing outside forces. Director Adam Mitchell, the cast and creatives of this production have shown us that this play stands the test of time. It is an intelligent, funny and heart-wrenching production that has respected and elevated Lawler’s text.
CAST: Jacob Allan, Michael Cameron, Mackenzie Dunn, Vivienne Garrett, Amy Mathews, Kelton Pell, Alison van Reeken
DIRECTOR: Adam Mitchell
SET & COSTUME DESIGNER: Bruce McKinven
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Trent Suidgeest
COMPOSER/SOUND DESIGNER: Ben Collins
FIGHT DIRECTOR: Andy Fraser
Photo credit Philip Gostelow