Belvoir, December 6
Were Barbara and the Camp Dogs a real band I’d be in the crush to hear them. Not since Hedwig and the Angry Inch has a rock musical been so close to a gig. The songs are strong, too, and would completely dominate this show were they not matched by the performances by of Ursula Yovich as Barbara and Elaine Crombie as Renee. Yovich, who co-wrote the play (with Alana Valentine) and the songs (with Valentine and Adm Ventoura), has had Barbara as a renegade alter ego for some years. In formalising the character into a text she and Valentine have created a pressure-cooker of resentment and rage at the maltreatment of our Aboriginal people. This reaches an apotheosis towards the end when Barbara describes Australia as “the meanest, pettiest, most ungenerous country in the world”.
She has a point. (Cue howls from the usual suspects.)
But this almost relentlessly negative character could wear thin were it not for Yovich’s realisation. Enter the warmth necessary for us to care about her and share her anger empathetically rather than ideologically.
This is not an issue with Renee, Barbara’s cousin and foster-sister. She has not received so many kicks in the teeth; is not a volcano ready to erupt at the slightest slight. Crombie ensures Renee’s humour, magnanimity and moral compass are immediately appealing.
Even so much of both characters’ warmth comes from their singing. While the songs might crowd the action, they also illuminate the sisters’ inner lives. Yovich and Crombie have the voices to beguile or impale as required – as does Troy Brady when he joins as Barbara’s estranged brother Joseph (although Brady’s acting lies somewhere south of his singing).
Leticia Caceres’ production (with set design by Stephen Curtis) turns Belvoir’s stage into a corner pub dominated by the Camp Dogs (led by bassist Jessica Dunn, with guitarist Debbie Yap and drummer Michelle Vincent). Around them stools, chairs, tables and couches accommodate a smattering of the audience.
Barbara’s previously quoted speech continues, “… at the heart of this country is a theft, and… nobody fears being thieved as much as a pack of thieves.” Yet for all its anger ultimately this is a play about healing. Without the songs this might not be so, but with them it becomes a torch helping spread the understanding that will light the path to reconciliation.
Until December 23.