BWW REVIEW:. BARBARA & THE CAMP DOGS, The Bold, Brash And Brilliant Must See Australian Work Returns For An Encore Season.
Friday 5th April 2019, 7:30pm, Belvoir St Theatre
Following on from a successful 2017 premiere season, Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine's BARBARA & THE CAMP DOGS returns to Belvoir for a second season. Part rock concert, part play, this is an Australian story presented with heart, humour and a whole heap of incredible new music.
Belvoir's upstairs theatre is transformed into a grungy pub rock gig for an incredible evening of powerful storytelling that captures a part of society not often seen on Sydney stages. Ursula Yovich's gruff and gritty alter ego Barbara is an Aboriginal Australian woman who holds a lot of anger and resentment and refuses to fit the mould of what a good girl should be and why should she, she has her cousin René (Elaine Crombie) who does that. Barbara is a singer who sings punk and grunge rock in pubs with her three woman band, The Camp Dogs (Jessica Dunn (Musical Director), Sorcha Albuquerque and Michelle Vincent), who like their namesake, follow Barbara in the hopes of another gig despite the fact that she won't pay them for the transport costs. René is also a singer but while she sometimes sings with Barbara, for her solo shows she has opted for a calmer clientele, those distracted by pokie machines at the casino that don't really pay attention to her presenting cover songs and the occasional original composition from the corner. The women have grown up as sisters with René's mother Jill, referred to as Mum, caring for Barbara from a young age when abandoned and it is this bond that sets them on a trip to Darwin to visit Mum as she faces terminal illness. As one would expect with a character as scrappy as Barbara, of course the trip back to Darwin does not go smoothly, from how they intend to fund the flights to discovering they need to return to Katherine as Mum has checked herself out of hospital to die closer to country.
Stephen Curtis transforms the space into a pub stage which stretches out to include the audience in an immersive experience. Tables and chairs flank the sides of the stage whilst the front rows have been replaced with an assortment of second hand sofas and a large coffee table. A chalkboard sign of the coming attractions, drink specials and food options dominates the wall to the side of the stage on which the band is assembled. Chloe Greaves' costuming captures the different personalities well with the plucky Barbara happy to go sans trousers when 'off stage' or in shortie shorts and camisole shirt whilst René tries to express a more refined and trendier image in pencil skirt and pink leopard print top. Minor changes help shift the mood from gigs to general life.
The work, directed by Leticia Cáceres, is a blend of breaking the fourth wall as Barbara and René talk directly to the audience and dramatic re-enactment whilst also presenting as a pub concert. The story is told with a realistic and unapologetic voice that doesn't shy away from the obscene and the insults that Barbara and René fire at each other are absolutely fabulous. The physicality is brilliant as Cáceres has the two moving up into the crowd, jumping on couches, squeezing in alongside the audience and getting into scraps with imagined characters. They break the illusion that they are separated from the audience by also making reference to the theatre and its regular subscribers thereby reinforcing that they are here to recount a story and that they'll adopt any technique to recreate an help tell that story, even if it is a disused exercise bike and lighting box.
The music, written by Valentine, Yovich and Adm Ventoura, with additional contributions from Vicki Gordon, Merenia Gillies and James Warwick Shipstone range from big bold rock that exudes anger and rebellion to comic jazz that lightens the tone and poignant ballads that tug at the heartstrings with moody darkness. THE CAMP DOGS are wonderful and they are more than just a band with easy playful interaction with Barbara as guitarist Albuquerque voices concern that their leader is leaving without them.
Yovich captures the frustration and anger of a woman sick of society treating her and her cousin as second class citizens simply based on the colour of their skin and the assumption that all they want to do is brawl and get drunk. This is layered with the intergenerational trauma and injustice Barbara feels as a First Nations woman in a country that has been taken from her ancestors only to have descendants like herself treated as other. She also ensures that there is an essence of an underlying anger, unrelated to society's stereotyping and unequal system so that when her past is revealed the pieces start to fall into place, making the audience empathise with the broken and vulnerable woman who has created an armour to protect her. With incredible vocals and fabulous comic timing and the ability to shift moods with realism, Yovich has the audience captivated.
Crombie ensures that René is seen as the more sensible and stable of the two as it is clear that René takes a more considered approach to her actions. She is sweet and likeable whilst also adding a comedy to break the tension Barbara creates ensuring that when she finally has enough of Barbara's antics the shift is clear and understandable. Her vocals are equally strong and her first solo singing René original song in the casino lounge is wonderfully moody and tortured.
With a more minor role of Barbara's brother Joseph, Troy Jungaji Brady, who also doubles as the band's rodie, has a stillness to counter Barbara's energy, reflecting the fact that he has found a peace with his past that Barbara is yet to discover. The duet is Barbara is touching as Joseph helps plug the holes of her past with memories of childhood and the trio together is powerful.
Telling stories of Indigenous Australians in contemporary Australia in a bold and brilliant piece of theatre that has you laughing, crying and clapping along, BARBARA & THE CAMP DOGS is definitely a must see production.
Photograhs: Brett Boardman