Barbara and the Camp Dogs (Malthouse) – theatre review

Barbara and the Camp Dogs pulls no punches. This is independent theatre with attitude.

The two key figures in this play with music are Indigenous first cousins, Barbara and Renee. They’ve been brought up as sisters. Barbara’s mother left her and her brother Joseph when Barbara was just seven years old. Their father later came to pick up Joseph; but not Barbara. Although Barbara was lovingly brought up by her aunt, Jill, the scars haven’t healed. Try as Renee might to keep Barbara on the straight-and-narrow, she’s been a wild child ever since. That’s meant drinking, brawling and police lock-ups.

The pair share a love of performing rock and soul numbers. Now living in Sydney, Renee learns Jill is very sick. She has to undertake a cross country trip – first to Darwin, then Katherine. The result is more chaos … and that’s when the naked truth pours out of Barbara.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs is raw; primordial even. This is the creative work of Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine, with songs by the pair and Adam Ventoura. It presents its material in rough-and-ready style, with humour and pathos. It has the uncanny ability to make you laugh and cry. A particularly telling monologue along the journey tells of theft of culture, country and language.  Barbara describes Australia as the “meanest, pettiest and most ungenerous country”. There’s no looking away … just a feeling of shame.

Make no mistake: Ursula Yovich, as Barbara, and Elaine Crombie as Renee put on quite a show. Here are a couple of performances that build a compelling picture of a life of turmoil and conflict. Troy Jungaji Brady makes a late appearance as Joseph. Members of the band (they’re the Camp Dogs) too make a solid impression. Sorcha Albuquerque, Michelle Vincent and Jessica Dunn are fine musicians who shine on guitar, drums and bass.

The L-shaped set design by Stephen Curtis appropriately reflects the ramshackle nature of proceedings, while allowing the audience to get close to the action.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs is a story of yearning and loss, of despair and desperation. Among the angst and aggravation, director Leticia Caceres delivers no shortage of bluster and moments of triumph. The opening night audience were particularly vocal in their praise.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs leaves an indelible mark. It’s playing at Merlyn Theatre at Malthouse Theatre until 3 March 2019.

Alex First

Other reviews you might enjoy: