‘It’s only February, and I think I’ve already seen the show of the year’: Carissa Lee on the scorching music theatre work Barbara and the Camp Dogs
It’s only February, and I think I’ve already seen the show of the year. Barbara and the Camp Dogs, a driving work of music theatre by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine, is a story about what family means. It’s about the pain that comes from trying to belong when everything seems to be working against you. It’s about the ongoing cruelty of the colonial system, about how it is still breaking our mob, two hundred years after invasion.
A sell-out Belvoir St production that opened last week at the Malthouse before a return Sydney season, Barbara and the Camp Dogs was also shortlisted for the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. This is no surprise, because it’s really well written, tight and spare. This remarkable piece of theatre makes us laugh and fall in love with two rock chick sisters, Barbara (Yovich) and René (Elaine Crombie), but it also reminds us that outside this auditorium is a world where Indigenous people are still treated like shit. It shows how, if our lives are not sabotaged by a country that hates us, we do it to ourselves. How we’ve been conditioned to believe that we’re not worthy of love, not even from those who care for us.
After a tumultuous journey through joy and heartache, Barbara and the Camp Dogs lifts us back into the buzz of a live gig, celebrating the fact that we’re still here, battling through the racism of this country and our turbulent family lives. We can still do this. Despite the hopeful, high energy finale, this isn’t a story where we simply laugh and go home. We know that everything will never be quite all right with the characters: and that sticks, too.
As we enter the Merlyn Theatre we’re greeted with loud red carpet, the kind that those of us who grew up in the country have all seen at our local RSL or footy clubs. There’s Aussie rock playing in the background, bringing me back to when my mum used to sing in pubs, with classics from INXS and Baby Animals. Some audience members are sitting at small bar tables on the stage itself, or in a front row of gorgeous old armchairs, and I have some serious seating envy. While we wait for the show to start, the energy of so much chattering mob in a room fills me with happiness. There are familiar black faces, excited for the show, watching the all-female band (Sorcha Albuquerque, Jessica Dunn, and Michelle Vincent) tune up on stage. It feels like the many times I’ve waited in a mosh pit for a band.
Stephen Curtis’ set is a proper feast for the eyes. A velvet red corner couch reminds me of the green one we had when I was little. The couch cushions get used as props in the performance, representing a patron Barbara is punching the crap out of during a bar fight, or laid down on a coffee table as their ill mother in hospital. The backdrop behind the band is a large blackboard with a large scrawled ‘Camp Dogs’, alongside happy hour prices and other bits and pieces. A small section of stage that levitates behind the band, to represent the motorbike and its sidecar the sisters use to travel between Darwin and Katherine.
The show opens with a welcome to country sung in language by Wurundjeri woman Chenile Chandler, which is beautiful. Mostly these things are said in English, but I really loved that this one wasn’t, because everyone in the audience knew what it meant. Then Yovich and Crombie jumped on stage like they owned it and belted out their first song. The audience, already well primed, responded with hoots, whistles and applause.
Barbara is a pocket rocket of attitude, and has absolutely no issue telling it like it is. Despite her immense voice, she refuses to sing covers for white people. Where Barbara is a prickly rock chick, Rene is sensual and confident, and knows how to negotiate the world a little better than Barbara. She has no issue wearing wigs and belting out classics, as long as it keeps a roof over her head. Throughout the show, Barbara gets the sisters into trouble – she gets into bar fights, pretends to be Indian for a gig on a yacht, and slashes the tyres of “Stella Cole with the stellar hole” because she stole Barbara’s man back in the day. Although René gets dragged along for these adventures, it takes some serious negotiating for Renee to convince Barbara to go to Darwin to see their seriously ill mother.
We discover that Barbara’s biological mother abandoned her and her brother Joseph with René’s Mum Jill. Later Barbara’s father rocked up to take her brother away, leaving her behind. As a result, “feeling abandoned is the closest to connected as she can get.” Barbara is forever waiting for the other shoe to drop, for everyone she loves to abandon her. The songs (written by Vicki Gordon, Adm Ventoura and Ursula Yovich) are beautiful and sad, and expressive of how a lot of mob feel, trying to find their place in the world, with lyrics like “What’s it like to escape, to make your life into a shape.” It brings up the pain of trying to tear yourself from a trauma the world wants to use to define you, of trying to become something that you decide instead.
Yovich and Valentine masterfully piece together a story illustrating how turbulent sibling relationships can be, with added wounds from blood family and the history of displacement that runs through our veins. Leticia Caceres’ mindful direction delivers an unwavering honesty, while maintaining an almost impossible level of energy throughout the entire show. As we head into the more emotional section of the play, Caceres keeps the performances real; the moments of sensuality, pain and laughter are never over-sentimentalised.
Crombie and Yovich seduce the audience with comedy during the first half, which makes the heartbreaking descent for these women all the more devastating. Although the play is focused on their emotional journeys as sisters and daughters, the pain of colonisation is always there: it’s in the “black bitch” abuse of an unseen bar patron, the police brutality towards Barbara and elder countrymen, and “the cruelty” that their younger brother Joseph (Troy Jungali Brady) describes at the end of the play.
During the latter part of the show, Yovich’s face was shining with tears. We see the pain racking her body as she expresses the rage and hopelessness of her character: it’s hard to watch, because it is lived, it’s real. And when Crombie finally cracks, crumbling from the responsible sister who holds the pair together, she lets everything go with a howl of devastation, disappointment and rage at Barbara that I felt in the pit of my stomach.
Although the sisters reconcile at the end, uniting in song with their brother Joseph, we get a sense that this trauma will never fully heal; this is another scar added to Barbara’s battered soul. One thing I really loved, and that I’m seeing more and more, is the embrace of the reality of a woman who is complex, who is not blameless. We’ve all done things that we wish we hadn’t, we’re all human. I’m hoping the trope of the perfect female protagonist is at last buried in the past. This is real. This is us.
Barbara and the Camp Dogs, written by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine, directed by Leticia Caceres. Songs by Vicki Gordon, Adm Ventoura, and Ursula Yovich, set by Stephen Curtis, lighting design by Karen Norris, costumes by Chloe Greaves. Performed by Elaine Crombie, Ursula Yovich and Troy Jungali Brady. Music performed by Sorcha Albuquerque, Jessica Dunn, and Michelle Vincent. Barbara and the Camp Dogs at Malthouse Theatre. Until March 3. Bookings Sydney Season at Belvoir st Theatre. April 4 – April 28. Bookings
Contains adult themes, strong coarse language and haze. To discuss potentially triggering content please contact Malthouse Theatre’s Box Office or speak with a member of staff.
Wheelchair accessible. Hearing assistance.
Tactile tour: 7.30pm, Friday 15 February