Barbara and the Camp dogs theatre review (Malthouse, Melbourne)

Is it too early to say: ‘if you only see one play this year, make it this one?’

Okay. In order of appearance:

THE DESIGN: (set, Stephen Curtis; costume, Chloe Greaves) is genius, an act of conjuration that cuts through the usual theatrical delineation of ‘us’ and ‘them’, by the simple expedient of making the entire theatre the set, the venue. Semi-site-specific really. Hoorah!

We’re on the diagonal, and the playing area juts right into the audience. THE BAND: (The Camp Dogs: Sorcha Albuquerque, Jessica Dunn, Michelle Vincent – fantastic musicians each one) are on stage, framed by the lighting rig. They’re backed by a massive blackboard with tonight’s gig listed and past attractions peeping through rubbed-out chalk: a palimpsest of bands gone-by.

It’s a pretty authentic anytime-from-about-1967 venue – sans the decades stale aroma of beer, sweat, pheromones, cigarette (and other weeds unmentionable) smoke, cheap cleaning fluid, and a soupçon of late-night vomit. Aaaaaah! Sweet memories of the misspent youth I wish I’d had! I half expect to find some chick having a meltdown in the girls’ toilets…

There are mismatched lounge suites and coffee tables, and a bit of a modular sofa unit.

I’m pretty sure I recognise the couch from my friend Sue Craw’s place. Some of the audience are seated here… they’ve crossed a line and, for the first time ever in an audience-interaction piece I regret my impulse to hide.

THE LIGHTING: (Karen Norris) is fabulous. It’s pure ‘band’ lighting with saturated colours and spots, but the height of the venue enhances the sense of drama and power allowing the performers to be both isolated from and embracing of the audience.

THE GIRLS enter. Barbara (Ursula Yovich) and René (Elaine Crombie). The physical contrast between the two is gorgeous: René tall and voluptuous; Barbara smaller with a coiled muscularity just waiting to be unleashed. They’re magnificent divas, they’re vulnerable girls, they’re complicated sisters; and there isn’t a note, a mode, a glance of withering irony or agonised pain these two can’t hit. Both characters are sexually confident, raunchy, witty, foul-mouthed and angry. Barbara especially is angry. With cause.

THE SCRIPT by Yovich and Alana Valentine is a gem. So quotable I’m reaching for my pen, but then I’m so caught up in the piece – roaring with laughter, ‘ouch!-ing’ at sharp-smart zingers – there’s no time to pause for note-taking. Please publish the script someone!

The first (riotous) part of the show sees Barbara and the Camp Dogs grabbing gigs where they can. The turn on the yacht of an Indian millionaire (‘Did you tell him we we’re Indian?!!!’) is wicked funny.

Gradually the back story fills out. Of Barbara’s mother, Tanya a long-grasser Barbara still looks for, though everyone else assumes she’s dead. Of Barbara’s abandonment by her father – who took her brother with him – of her upbringing with her cousin-sister René by Tanya’s sister Jill. The relationship of women is the heat of this piece.

And it’s the impending death of Mum Jill that brings things to a head. The return to Katherine via Darwin (‘where are our countrymen?’) and Barbara’s drunken encounters in the park – leading to her arrest – confirm an Indigenous anguish that won’t just ‘go away’. Her recounting the words of a woman whose children were stolen is a howl of pain Yovich allows full reign.

If this is a new play, it’s over 200 years in the making. And it doesn’t let it’s non-Indigenous audience members off:

‘At the heart of this country is a theft’ accuses Barbara (just one? I can’t help but murmur).

‘Nobody fears being thieved as much as a pack of thieves.’

‘Sorry’ doesn’t really cut it, especially if you don’t wait around to find out whether the apology is accepted or not.

The reunion between brother and sister is moving. Troy Brady’s still and understated performance is a contrast to the tumultuous Barbara and seems to confirm a cultural sureness of self that she lacks.

THE DIRECTION by Leticia Cáceres is precise, simple, evocative, effortless. And clever.

Never has the potential of the modular lounge unit been so embraced! This is storytelling: unaffected but effective and effecting. I gotta say though, the motorbike is a coup!

The sound mix is a bit echoe-y when the actors move from stage to lounge/floor space which is frustrating because the script is so strong, so funny, so sharp – you don’t want to miss a word.

THE SONGS by contrast are not just musically satisfying, but clear, every word intelligible. They allow the emotional trajectory of the story full range. And the range the pretty simple storyline allows for is extensive. From Aretha-moments, to torch, to punchy-punk Pretenders-style challenges. Tick Sista, a duet between René and Barbara, confirms that this show is feminist with a capital ‘up-you’.

Songwriters are listed as Yovich, Valentine and Am Ventura (also musical director), with contributions by Vicki Gordon (co-producer and Yovich’s manager), Merenia Gillies and James Warwick.

THE REACTIONS: My sister Kirsty – a nurse who works at the Top End – was choked up at all the stuff set in Katherine (‘it’s true, it’s all true,’ she said). My seriously cool 18 year old nephew Silas (so cool he attended this show with two aunties, ego unruffled), just kept saying ‘that was great, that was so great’, then announced he’d be happy to attend future shows with me. ‘They’re not all as fantastic as this,’ I warn.

We bought the CD.

At the Malthouse until March 3

Photo by Brett Boardman of Elaine Crombie, Ursula Yovich and Troy Brady in Barbara and the Camp Dogs

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