BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS
BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS, Belvoir in association with Vicki Gordon Music Productions at Belvoir Upstairs, 6-23 December 2017. Photography by Brett Boardman: above - l-r: Debbie Yap, Elaine Crombie, Ursula Yovich and Michelle Vincent; below - Elaine Crombie and Ursula Yovich; below again - Debbie Yap
Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine between them have crafted an electrifying musical play in Barbara and the Camp Dogs. It’s tough, tender, funny and rude. It will tear your heart out and make you weep with laughter and sorrow. It stars the multi-talented Yovich as her long-time alter ego, rock chick Barbara; there’s also backing vocalist and cousin/sister René (Elaine Crombie), and Barbara’s estranged brother and occasional backing vocalist Joseph, Troy Brady. Behind them is the onstage band of guitarist Debbie Yap, drummer Michelle Vincent, musical director/bassist Jessica Dunn. Working as co-lyricist and musical rehearsal director is Adm Ventoura – all making this remarkable outfit as tight as a crab’s bum underwater.
Yet Crombie’s René isn’t a 20 Feet From Stardom sort, rather she is Barbara’s reluctant guardian and conscience in a narrateve which begins with their disillusion over the Sydney pub rock scene. (Grungy set by Stephen Curtis and lighting by Karen Norris from which the pong of spilt beer, spew and old ciggies visibly rises – in the imagination at least.)
Barbara’s career to date is marked by her skill at getting fired or picking fights, while René’s approach is more pragmatic: she has a regular income in a covers act at the casino. But Barbara soon stuffs that up. Then René delivers the news that their mother has been taken ill in Darwin – it’s serious, they have to go, no matter what.
Barbara’s almost constant simmering rage at life is given a back story that explains its childhood roots, but also makes no bones about its wider social and political sources. These are smart, cosmopolitan Aboriginal women to whom white Australia has been no kinder than it was to their mothers and grandmothers. There are no sentimental misconceptions hidden in the depths of their tote bags: they have been dispossessed and dissed and they know it.
Nevertheless, there is much wicked humour in the script (it’s not exactly book and lyrics because Camp Dogs is more of a play with songs that grow out of and remain a literary part of the whole). Whether it’s in some of the songs or situations, laughter ranges from out loud and raucous to sneaky chuckles; just enough to get you off-balance before you get another whack around the chops with a sockful of reality, that is.
When she’s not beating up on herself, Barbara gives it to Australia with both barrels and she doesn’t hold back. One of the best observations has to be in relation to the theft of the land by the first white arrivals: “nobody fears being thieved so much as a pack of thieves,” she says acidly. But the gleam in her eyes suggests she’s laughing inside: at the continuing inability of the thieves to fess up to their crimes.
Barbara and René’s journey to Darwin proves to be an expensive fizzer: mum is in Katherine hospital and the way they get there – stony broke but ever-resourceful – is a comic and musical highlight. Yet Barbara blows her good intentions in one of her recurring bouts of self pity – everything is always someone else’s fault, she has yet to get to grips with the idea of being responsible for her actions. And this time, it’s a whinge too far for René who’s been let down one time too many. As it also proves for Joseph, when Barbara grudgingly catches up with him.
The character of Barbara is an unusual one: she’s not perfect, she’s not a simple victim nor is she an unblemished heroine, rather she is a complex, flawed, credible mix of human frailties and foibles. Ursula Yovich gives her a clear-eyed, gutsy presence and, of course, she sings – oh does she sing!
Elaine Crombie, too, is a dazzling presence, both as a singer and actor. Her exasperation with Barbara and more nuanced attitude to life are present in every twitch of an eyebrow or daggers look at her sister. She is also an accomplished comic and is as bold a scene-stealer as ever swaggered off with a moment.
Director Leticia Cáceres is the glue that holds all these explosive elements together. She showed, with The Drover’s Wife, that she has a powerful affinity with the combustible women and their stories – which reveal so much about Australia – and she achieves the same with Barbara and the Camp Dogs. It’s an achievement that honours the rough spirit of the work while imbuing it with strong theatricality.
Set to run up to Christmas, this is a show that is heartfelt, honest, unflinching, hilariously funny, gaspingly rude, deeply forgiving and, in the end, humane and far-sighted. I loved it and I hope you will too: grab your tickets.