Review: Barbara and the Camp Dogs (Queensland Theatre with Belvoir & Vicki Gordon Music Productions)

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Ursula Yovich in Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Photographed by Brett Boardman.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs is a fierce, fresh, and vital new musical which examines family tensions and loyalty, and questions of personal and national identity through raging rock and beautiful ballads.

Following a powerful opening song, the audience meet Barbara and René – cousins raised together in Katherine by René’s mother Jill, and now both trying to make it big (or make ends meet) in the Sydney music scene. Barbara is ferocious and foul-mouthed, a rock’n’roller playing pub gigs with her band The Camp Dogs, while René’s style is soulful and heartfelt, singing covers and original songs at the casino, her performance glowing warm compared to Barbara’s searing hot. Although René can hold her own against Barbara in every way, she has a calmer, no-nonsense energy and takes responsibility for the things in her life (and Barbara’s) that she can control. When Jill is hospitalised, René literally drives Barbara back home to face her past and her responsibilities as a daughter, a sister, and an adult.

The lights had barely gone down on the final scene when the audience jumped up for a standing ovation and, like any great rock gig, the three singers and the Camp Dogs delivered a rousing encore in response.

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Setting of Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Photographed by Brett Boardman.

A soundtrack of pub favourites welcomed us to the Bille Brown Theatre, totally transformed for opening night of Barbara and the Camp Dogs. The chalkboard backdrop is recognisable from almost any pub in Australia, scrawled with specials and event times, and cabaret seating had some audience members up close and personal, watching the action from wooden pub tables and bar stools. The colourful, patterned eyesore carpet rounded out Stephen Curtis’ set design and moved the audience seamlessly between pubs, casinos, and hospital waiting rooms. Lighting design by Karen Norris, costume design by Chloe Greaves, and sound design by Steve Toulmin also took the audience from Sydney’s pub scene to the dusty heat of the Northern Territory.

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Ursula Yovich in Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Photographed by Brett Boardman.

Directed by Leticia Cáceres, the work and its many songs were co-written by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine and performed with vigour by the onstage band – Sorcha Albuquerque on lead guitar, Michelle Vincent on drums, and Music Director Jessica Dunn on bass. Black Arm Band musician Troy Jungaji Brady stepped out of his role as roadie at the end to become Barbara’s estranged brother Joseph, joining Crombie and Yovich with an acoustic guitar and adding his voice to the stunning final numbers. The songs themselves are used primarily to express or reflect upon the emotion of a scene, rather than for exposition or narrative-building, as in a more traditional musical. Like any good musical, though, it ends on a hopeful note.

 

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Elaine Crombie, Ursula Yovich, and Troy Jungaji Brady. Photographed by Brett Boardman.

The work makes comment on the state of live music and musicians in Australia, with the characters interacting directly with the band, but this is more of an aside than its dissection of the racism and theft at the heart of modern Australia, particularly in one heart-stopping monologue delivered by Barbara as she is thrown roughly into a paddy wagon by Katherine police.

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Ursula Yovich in Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Photographed by Brett Boardman.

Despite Yovich’s Barbara being the titular character, Elaine Crombie’s René is equally essential and delivered an equally powerful and emotive performance. The tension and chemistry between them were electric, from their irreverent banter and teasing to arguments and accusations filled with such raw emotion that you felt you should look away. In the silence, you could hear only the sniffles of the audience members wiping their eyes.

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Elaine Crombie in Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Photographed by Brett Boardman.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs will play at the Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane, from 1 – 25 May, 2019. For ticketing and further information, visit the Queensland Theatre website.

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