A pre-show soundtrack of Oz-rock classics adds an air of excitement to the experience of audience members awaiting the Brisbane season of Belvoir Theatre’s Barbara and the Camp Dogs by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine. It’s an effective emphasis of the pub rock atmosphere for anyone who hasn’t gathered the feel of set designer Stephen Curtis’ bold aesthetic vision, detailed even down to the corner-stage’s backdrop blackboard advertising happy-hour specials and the gawdily-patterned pub carpet beneath barstools and well-worn couches. With the audience banked around three sides of the pub stage and surrounds (where some audience members are also seated), a band takes the stage and the scene is set for 100 minutes of raw rock and powerful dramatic performances.
Barbara (Shakira Clanton, rather than Ursula Yovich for this mid-week performance) and Rene (Elaine Crombie) are two Indigenous siblings and Sydney performers with their back-up band, the Camp Dogs. When a family crisis calls them back to Darwin and then on to their home town, the complexity of their relationship and, in particular, Barbara’s ferocity, unfolds. And from the time the duo take to the road to trip down to Katherine, when things pick up pace-wise, it is thanks to the pair’s humorous interactions, full of the sarcasm, mockery and the outright insults that are so common in sibling back-and-forth banter.
True siblings or not, these two woman sure can sing and songs feature predominantly throughout the production. There are many musical numbers, particularly in early scenes, making it difficult to recall individual highlights, without a song list in the program to assist. The soundtrack starts with loud and energetic rock numbers that vibrate with energy, however, the highlights come when songs slow to more emotional numbers in reveal of Barbara’s drives and disappointments and resulting conflict of belonging. Rather than dominating, music in the show’s second half is used to subtly signal a change in its tone, of the kind not realised until after its occurrence. And its final number, ‘Let in the Love’ with Troy Jungaji Brady serves as an acute reminder of the thematic message at its core.
Elaine Crombie is genuinely entertaining as ever as the personality-plus Rene, however, as is suggested by the title, this really is Barbara’s story. As understudy stepping into Ursula Yovich’s shoes, Clanton gives a sensational performance in the eponymous role, evidenced not only in her angsty attitude but in her harrowing show of grief’s real rawness and confronting monologue about the theft of country, community and culture. It’s a powerful political message moment, of the Get Krack!n final episode essential viewing sort.
Barbara and the Camp Dogs is a show of big themes explored in intimate ways. Its balance of humour and drama is entertaining, thought-provoking and ultimately moving in that sneak-up-on-you kind of way. Add in its easy-to-follow narrative, absorbing performances and sensational vocal displays and it is easy to appreciate its previous seasons’ successes.
Barbara and the Camp Dogs is playing at the Bille Brown Studio, West End, Brisbane until 25 May 2019.
For more of Meredith Walker’s theatre reviews, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane.