Susie Porter in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll | Belvoir Street Theatre

In a sense, I grew up with this play. I can’t remember when I first heard of it, but I must’ve been young. It wasn’t just in the vernacular, but in the ether. It was out there alongside cultural markers like You Can’t See Round Corners, They’re A Weird Mob, My Name’s McGooley, Mavis Bramston; even Skippy, Louie The Fly and Bandstand. They may not have been exact contemporaries, but they hovered over the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and roughly constituted a milieu.

And yet, it’s taken until now for me to finally see a production of Ray Lawler’s groundbreaking Australian play, first performed at the Union Theatre, Melbourne, on November 28, 1955. In many ways it defines and embodies the theatrical notion of naturalism and it’s little wonder it’s still holds as perhaps the most significant of all Australian plays to date, by dint of its uncompromisingly realistic depictions of Aussie characters and life.

Set, faithfully, in Carlton, in the summer of ’53, or thereabouts, Belvoir’s new staging does this icon immense justice. Its six central characters having been impeccably cast by (ex-artistic) director Neil Armfield, in what serves as his final swansong. A fitting conclusion to an esteemed 17-year legacy. And just look at the cast. Even on paper, it’s daunting. Susie Porter. Robyn Nevin (who I believe to be probably our very finest actor). Yael Stone. TJ Power. Helen Thomson. Dan Wyllie. Steve Le Marquand.

At the time of writing the play, Australia may’ve been slap-bang in the middle of an economic boom, but things weren’t necessarily a boon socially. Lawler focusses in, sharply, on a growing malaise. Things have been sweet for 17 years. Olive has been lending room and board to two blokes she chance-met, Roo and Barney, who work the cane season. During the layoff, Roo lays Olive in an ideal, part-time, virtual marriage.

But things go horribly, inexorably, uncontrollably, off the rails. There’s trouble between Olive and Roo. Roo and Barney. And that’s but the tip of the iceberg. Olive’s friend and co-worker, Pearl, who has tickets on herself, has come to stay, at Olive’s behest, to meet Barney. There’s an all-round inkling Pearl might take up with the cane-worker. After all, it’ll help him get over Nance, who’s left him and remarried. It’ll help Pearl get out of her lonely rut. And it’ll help Olive preserve the tidy foursome that’s existed to that point, to which her world is also coupled.

Olive and co’s tradition is, for them, more binding and significant than, say, Christmas, or Easter, was for most of their contemporaries. The layoff is what they all live for and what makes the larger part of the year endurable. It’s an emotional promised land; a vacation for the soul; an escape; a pressure-release valve. The tradition is upheld and the pilgrimage symbolised by kewpie dolls; a new one brought and bestowed each returning season by the nesting canecutters. (Yes, that’s the excuse for the mysterious name.) Next-door neighbour, Kathie ‘Bubba’ Ryan, sees the whole tableau through rose-coloured glasses, tinted by both Olive’s portraits of their lifestyle and what see observes on casual, if frequent, visits. She makes Olive’s place her second home and Olive, in turn, virtually adopts the girl. The only individual who sees things with a suitably jaundiced, world-weary eye is Olive’s crabby mother Emma, who hides a heart of gold beneath a veneer of caustic ill-temper.

The beauty of Lawler’s style and construction is inasmuch as both plot and characters are revealed progressively, so it’s not until the wrenching conclusion that all becomes clear. It’s flawless writing and a great advertisement for the conventional play; an all too uncommon reminder that, when executed well, there’s still no substitute for it. And it’s brave. No happy endings here.

Performances, all-round, are stunning. While Roo comes across as a little too mannered and contrived (however artfully, much in the way of, say, a Brando), the other characters are models of naturalism. Bubba has just the right nuanced expression or gesture at just the right moment; almost microsurgically finessed. Olive is an example of how a few outstanding film and television actors can rival themselves with complementary stagecraft: Porter is a surpassing revelation. Nevin, as Emma, cements her reputation with another masterclass of a performance: she makes Emma completely knowable; she’s your elderly mum, cranky aunt, or someone else you can barely tolerate, yet can’t help but admire and respect. Barney is a faithful recreation of the knockabout bloke, of an ilk, if not extinct, almost certainly critically endangered.

The set and lighting are transporting: those of us old enough to recognise it will be thrown into deep nostalgia, even while peeling paint on the walls serves as a haunting metaphor for the stresses that seep from between the cracks in the characters and their fractured relationships.

Rarely (in the sense of practically never) does one witness such sublime synergy between play and production; writer, director, players and crew. All here are aboard the same bus. I suggest you embark on this unforgettable journey. I implore you. I insist.

I’ll leave the all-but-last word to Lindsay Brown, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald the year after the play was first performed:

“This fine play, untransplantably Australian in all its accents, gave Australian theatregoers the chance to feel as American audiences must have felt when O’Neill first began to assert American vitality and independence in drama, or the Irish must have felt when Synge gave them The Playboy Of The Western World.”

Yes, this is a play, and production, of greatness, that hovers head-and-shoulders above the merely good, let alone the bad and the ugly.

The details: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll plays Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre until November 13. Limited tickets are available on the company website. The same production opens Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2012 season in January.

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