by Ivan King OAM
Just three months after the Playhouse Theatre opened for (show) business in August 1956, Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll took to its stage and for the first time Perth audiences came to know the pain and passion of two barmaids and a couple of cane cutters from North Queensland.
We were delighted. Here was a successful contemporary drama portraying our own people, to be seen in our brand-new Fifties Moderne auditorium in Pier Street. Furthermore, after the Perth run it was booked for a season in London’s West End - presented by no less a personage than Sir Laurence Olivier himself. At long, long last Australian culture was on the map!
However, it seems that not everybody was delighted. Madge Ryan, who took the role of Pearl, knew otherwise. In 1987, while at His Majesty’s Theatre in Aren’t We All, she recorded her memory of that heady period. When asked how locals responded to The Doll she replied in the crisp, cutting diction of an old pro, “I think they were slightly stunned by it. There was a certain amount of snobbishness when it was discovered—it didn’t seem to emerge until it was discovered that we were going to England. Particularly in Melbourne where we were at the time. I can’t speak for the rest of Australia. Oh, dear, you’re not taking that play to England. What will the English think? Common barmaids. However, we did take the play to England and the English adored it. Common barmaids or not.”
We were to see The Doll in a different locale when the Hollywood version reached our local picture theatres in 1959-1960. Carlton Victoria was replaced by the inner suburban streetscapes of Sydney, with the story expanded so much that Barney, Roo, Pearl and Olive enjoyed a night out in Luna Park. Playing that true blue, dinky-di foursome were Anne Baxter, Angela Lansbury, Earnest Borgnine and Sir John Mills.
For 1974 Festival of Perth Sydney’s Nimrod brought their Doll to the Octagon Theatre, with an actor destined to become a major screen presence, Bill Hunter, as Roo.
Edgar Metcalfe’s 1981 production was to be seen in The Hole In The Wall Theatre, then occupying a warehouse in Southport Street, Leederville. Faith Clayton made a disapproving Pearl not at all amused by the antics of Maurie Ogden’s Barney and Phil Wilbraham’s Roo. Of added interest all these years later was the casting of today’s writer Ailsa Piper as Bubba. So tiny was the stage that the boys’ fisticuffs took place in the wings, unseen-but certainly heard-by the audiences. Yes, the playing area was small, but surely no smaller than the cramped terrace house in which the scenes are set.
Less than a year later the Hole hosted more performances when director Raymond Omodei revisited Metcalfe’s earlier production. There were cast changes. Rosemary Barr replaced Helen Tripp as Olive, while Peter Hardy took over from Andy King as Johnnie Dowd. Following that Leederville season, the show went on the road, playing one night stands in the Goldfields and the Wheatbelt. Returning to the city they then did a week of ‘Studio Performances’ in His Majesty’s Theatre-the studio being the second-floor rehearsal room that now is home base for WA Opera.
Raymond Omodei was again in the director’s chair for a 1988 revival at the Hole In The Wall, which by then was resident company in Subiaco Theatre Centre (now Subiaco Arts Centre). This was a production like no other. Dressed in black or white or beige the actors were placed in a creamy white abstract setting by Serge Tampalini. But oh, what a cast! Kevan Johnston, Leith Taylor, Peter Hardy, Alinta Carroll, Jeremy Callaghan and Jill Perryman. And just as she had done in the 1981 and 1982 seasons, veteran Nita Pannell scythed her way through the drama as shrewd old Emma. Nobody but Nita could deliver that line “I’m catching the breeze off the gutter.”
Metcalfe returned as director for Class Act Theatre’s production at Rechabites Hall in 2006, when Geoff Kelso played Barney in a cast that included Dan Luxton, Helen Doig, Angelique Malcolm, and Margaret Anketell who won Best Supporting Actress Award for her Emma.
When Melbourne Theatre Company brought Robyn Nevin’s interpretation to His Majesty’s Theatre in 1989 the Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was again in its traditional framework. Brilliantly evoking the world of faded, paint-peeling, working class Carlton in the Fifties, designer Tony Tripp created a perfect set for actors bringing Ray Lawler’s words to another generation of West Australian theatregoers. Words which, following the Playhouse season way back in 1956, were described by a local reviewer as “Rabelaisian in flavour. The speech-often strangely rhythmical-is in the authentic idiom and expresses sentiments which are both tough and fleshy.”
Or as one gentleman was heard to say wistfully as he left the Maj opening night in 1989, “My Dad used to talk like that.”