I'm a freelance actor, travel writer, photographer, foodie and attention seeker living in the lower North Shore. Check out my blog at www.emmajaneexplores.com for more.
Where do you go when you don't belong anywhere?
Barbara and the Camp Dogs transforms upstairs Belvoir from one of Sydney's elite theatre spaces to a dowdy and grungy pub, where sisters Barbara and René belt out tunes accompanied by an all-girl indie-rock trio. The script layers themes of belonging, family, home and loss, laced with all the fire, rage and gut-wrenching pain of what it means to be an Indigenous Australian. When that pain becomes too much, or when words can't do the job, the cast sing through the emotion and it's a raw and moving experience to sit in the audience of this hybrid rock concert-play.
The Cast of Barbara and the Camp Dogs / Photo: Brett Boardman
Co-written and led by the extraordinary Ursula Yovich, Barbara and the Camp Dogs tells the story of two cousins, René (Elaine Crombie) and Barbara (Ursula Yovich) who became sisters when Barbara's mother abandoned her in Katherine. Barbara is a broken ball of fire, angry and able to snap at the slightest provocation whereas René is the more practical and emotionally well-adjusted of the two. The sisters embark on a journey from Sydney to Darwin, then home to Katherine to visit their mother, and the journey awakens a lot more baggage than either of them bargained for.
Ursula Yovich is an absolute powerhouse as Barbara. Her feisty, devil-may-care attitude drives the piece along and when her hard exterior finally cracks it is poignant and gut-wrenching. Elaine Crombie as René delivers a rounded performance that is just as compelling. She performs an honesty and integrity on stage that is beautiful to watch and is able to match Yovich in the more emotional scenes perfectly. Both women are incredible performers and their ability to channel raw emotion into rock songs and shift between singing and dialogue is impeccable. Troy Brady is the third player, entering the story towards the end as Barbara's brother Joseph. He is softly spoken and withdrawn, but really hits his straps when given the opportunity to sing. His acoustic song played on guitar is beautiful and mellow and when he follows it up with some incredible vocal moments in the final number, his talent as a singer is beyond doubt.
The sisters on their way to Katherine / Photo: Brett Boardman
The direction of this piece is sound, and in lesser hands than Leticia Cáceres', the production may not have been as profound or ground shaking as it is. Cáceres navigates the difficult transitions from song to spoken word seamlessly and the overall production has exactly the right level of gritty and raw to really hit home. Writers Alana Valentine and Ursula Yovich have done an impeccable job in creating a script and music that presents an incredible, fierce and passionate voice for the Indigenous community that resonates amongst the entire audience. When Barbara rages about what it feels like to not belong, it's so moving that a large proportion of audience members (including me) can be audibly heard sniffing and seen wiping away tears of rage, sadness, despair for the destruction and displacement of the rightful owners of the country.
The incomparable Ursula Yovich / Photo: Brett Boardman
The design elements of this production do lots to support the performers, with Stephen Curtis' set design giving off the feel of an old pub and Chloe Greaves' simple costuming representing the differences between the characters beautifully. Karen Norris' lighting is mostly strong and particularly effective in the songs, with the exception of a couple of fleeting odd moving light moments that left members of the audience lit. Sound design by Steve Toulmin is incredibly executed, with the mixing levels the perfect combination of rock concert and theatrical experience. There was enough grunge to feel the music, but enough clarity that I didn't miss a word that was sung. In a space like the Belvoir Theatre that is no mean feat.
The Set of Barbara and the Camp Dogs / Photo: Brett Boardman
Barbara and the Camp Dogs deserves to be playing to full houses every night. It's an important work on many levels, giving voice to the disenfranchised and displaced. It's also one hell of a ride, with powerful and gutsy performances and rollicking rock songs to round it out. It's truly one of the most unique nights at the theatre I've had in a long time.