Theatre review: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

It’s hard for me to imagine the change that Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll brought to theatre in Australia at its first season in 1955, but it’s not hard to see why it resonated, both here and overseas. I saw Neil Armfield’s production at the Playhouse last Thursday night, and felt that it is both a uniquely Australian experience and a story that touches a universal chord.

I studied this play in English Literature in my final years of high school; I may even have written about it for my Tertiary Entrance Exams, though I can’t be sure. Years later I remembered the kewpie dolls and sense of people at odds with each other, but little else, except that this play is important. I knew this even as a sixteen-year old, with no theatre experience, having only read the text on a page, and never having seen it performed.

Reviewers like to say that Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is important / seminal / timeless / a turning point in Australian theatre… so I risk being repetitive with my comments above.  What I can say that is unique to me is the way that seeing this play performed made me feel.

It made me sad for Olive (Alison Whyte), first of all. Sad for all of us, me included, who want to break out of the roles that society has defined for us: this is, after all, what has held her in the relationship with Roo (Steve Le Marquand) for sixteen summers already. But in breaking out of one role, she has created another for herself, one which is equally defining. She, perhaps more than any of the characters, is the one who is unable to grow in this role.

And so she clings to the five months of the year that she, Roo, Barney (Travis McMahon) and Nancy have spent together for the last sixteen summers. She tries to repeat it for the seventeenth, but with Pearl (Helen Thomson) in Nancy’s place. Predictably, it doesn’t work – the audience can see this tension from the very first scene. Pearl is not Nancy, and in Nancy’s departure everything has changed.

It’s not just because she is gone and Barney is bereft, but because Nancy’s marriage and walking away from this life signals something else: the end of this life for the rest of them, too. It’s something that was always going to come, and Nancy saw it before any of them. Nancy’s absence is one of the loudest parts of this play. She is a central character and in her way she is a catalyst for what has changed, yet she never appears on stage.

There is a sense that the characters have been living on borrowed, or perhaps suspended, time. In sixteen years little has changed and so some of them have not grown as individuals in this time, either. Roo and Emma (Olive’s mother, played by Robyn Nevin) both refer to Olive as no more than a child – unchanged from the young woman who met Roo many years ago.

Roo, too, has been trapped in the qualities and experiences of his youth that he thought would last forever – being the best at what he did, with a body that wouldn’t give up on him. At least he is able to think about a new way of life; Olive cannot, and falls apart along with the collapse of the seventeenth summer.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is, of course, well written. The actors inhabit and embody their characters fully: Steve Le Marquand as Roo is a standout, moving from rage at Barney to gentle love for Olive, authentic at both extremes. In some ways I can’t say I enjoyed this play, because it left me with tears in my eyes and too many thoughts about regret and nostalgia. But I thoroughly appreciated the experience of watching such strong theatre; it is a reminder of what can be said and experienced through theatre that neither books nor movies can achieve.

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