SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL at Union House Theatre: Nostalgia comes with a price


Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955) is revived at Union Theatre, 58 years after it was first performed at the University of Melbourne’s original venue of the same name. Set in 1950s Carlton, Lawler’s play broke the boundaries of its time by presenting an authentic portrayal of Australian characters living Australian lives.

It is the story of Olive (Alexandra Aldrich), a woman nearing middle-age, who has hosted 16 fantastic summers at her house where she lives with her cantankerous, shrewd mother Emma (Margot Fenley). Every summer, Olive and her friend Nancy (who is absent from the play, having been newly married prior to the story) welcome their respective boyfriends, the typically macho cane-cutters Roo (Martin Blum) and Barney (Henry Kelly). Olive, Roo and Barney’s seventeenth summer is different: Nancy has moved on and the charm has gone along with their youth. The Seventeenth Doll is a tragicomic portrait of the trio’s desperate attempts to recreate their halcyon days, which ultimately culminate in failure, uncertainty and heartbreak. Tensions and awkwardness are further exacerbated by the arrival of newcomers Pearl (Leah Bourne), an uptight woman who Olive tries to set up with Barney, and Johnnie Dowd (Kailen Missen), a young, earnest cane-cutter who threatens Roo’s position as leader in their group. The only true manifestation of innocence, aside from the kewpie dolls Roo brings Olive every summer, is 22-year-old Bubba (Nuo (Cecilia) Liu), Olive and Emma’s cheerful neighbour who has covetously witnessed the past 16 summers.

Director Petra Kalive’s 2023 revival has renewed the play for a contemporary audience. Movement Director Xanthe Beesley mentioned to me that The Seventeenth Doll is “different” from the plays we see today, in that it is “slower”,  asking the audience to “sit tight.” Nevertheless, at no point in the show did I feel as if my experience was being dragged out. The combination of Beesley and Kalive’s immersive direction and the show’s design created a seamless production. Every movement flowed beautifully; particularly impressive were the transitions: every exit and every prop movement was expertly done.

Lawler’s play, though highly naturalistic, turned fantastical and surreal through a brilliant set. Surrounding Olive and Emma’s quaint living room is a cornfield, though the enormous set is gradually deconstructed as the play progresses, signifying the end. It is made more poignant still when the characters themselves dismantle the set, signalling that it has become more and more difficult for them to remain blind to the reality that is chasing and already surrounding them. Perhaps it also symbolises their own role in the destruction of their happiness. The seventeenth summer is rife with personal conflict and cruel accusations: Barney and Roo are arguing because Barney has recently broken his friend’s trust over an incident, Olive is frequently irritated by her mother and refuses to face these tensions head on, dismissing them as things that “don’t matter.” Here, I reiterate the brilliancy of the play’s production design–a large stage did well to benefit the show, in addition to technically inventive sound and lighting, as it heightened the sense of deep disturbance in the lives of the characters. The deconstruction of the set also made me feel part of the unravelling of the summers, which touched me deeply especially in the second half of the play.

A shining moment for me was midway through Act Two, after Roo accidentally smashes Olive’s treasured vase of the kewpie dolls Roo brought her every year. Aldrich truly impresses in her performance, as she screams in agony, and gradually breaks down from that point onwards as she is forced to come to terms with the end of her fantasies. The sound of a broken record plays, the light dims to a dark purple and Roo and Olive are left alone in the living room: Roo, defeated, resting his forehead on the piano and Olive, kneeling on the carpet, picking up shards of the vase. This is one such example of how The Doll has been modernised in 2023. The broken record in particular is a clever artistic choice, along with the slow motion of the characters, further accentuating emotions of nostalgia and the genuine pain of letting go.

Despite the excellence of the production, I am critical of the fact that Union House Theatre (UHT) elected to hire professional actors rather than have an all-student cast. While I imagine that the combination of Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and UHT alumni such as Aldrich and Blum, and current students such as Missen and Liu must have created a rich environment for collaboration, Union House Theatre is meant to be a space for student theatre-makers. And yes, I acknowledge that UHT has done a fantastic job in facilitating such a space–I myself am a student theatre-maker and I am extremely grateful for the opportunities and mentorships UHT has provided me–I was disappointed in their handling of The Doll. This is primarily due to the promotion of professional actors over student actors in its leading roles. In the marketing for The Doll, I also often felt that students were overshadowed by their more experienced castmates.

UHT also receives access to resources that can be difficult for amateur student theatre-makers to receive, such as budget for expensive venue hire and production design. This poses a problem because it raises questions surrounding accessibility for students in theatre.

All-in-all, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a play I enjoyed immensely and I congratulate the entire cast and crew for an amazing job well-done. That being said, I do not think it was a play that prioritised students, which detracts from UHT’s mission at the University of Melbourne.

Union House Theatre ran Summer of the Seventeenth Doll from 3 October to 7 October 2023.

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