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Theatre

‘Barbara and the Camp Dogs’: politics and heart in the pub

By Fiona McGregor
Part cracking musical, part Indigenous family drama, Belvoir’s latest production deserves to go far

Barbara is more than a character played by Ursula Yovich: she’s an alter ego, a genie of rage, lust and grief, a comic sort of Fury who’s grabbed the main part. Her sister René (Elaine Crombie) almost eclipses her: it is the friction between the two that fires this story.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs (Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until 23 December 2017) is a road trip set in a pub, complete with lurid vomit-concealing carpet extending across the stage and up the first steps of the seating. Barbara and René are struggling, like all good female rock musicians, let alone Indigenous ones. The humdrum of getting gigs to pay the rent moves into top gear when their mother is hospitalised in Darwin, and the sisters need a plane fare. And so ensues a hilarious and heartbreaking journey. Back to country, to death, via the shitty Australian music industry, with the extreme fracture and resilience that can characterise Indigenous families, and side trips for sizzling sex bomb René’s mulga bush.

Yovich and Alana Valentine’s script literally pulls no punches, with Barbara’s first victim, a racist in the casino, floored in the first five minutes. This pint-sized meld of muscle and mishap then takes on the security guard, shoving his head in the fountain outside. Barbara “doesn’t give a bag full of smashed arseholes”. The language is relentlessly, necessarily obscene, recalling the golden age of surreal Australian vernacular, inflected with contemporary Aboriginality. As funny as the fights are, their tragedy is never elided. There’s a mood change precipitated by mother Jill’s failing health, and Barbara’s soliloquy about this “meanest, pettiest, most ungenerous country in the world” hits home. The bedrock of her anger lies beneath us all.

Vicki Gordon has produced a package where the elements of pub show, musical, polemic and family drama jostle alongside one another without neat definition, and so cohere. Hell, Barbara could even be produced in a casino. Director Letitia Cáceres fools us into thinking it’s more than a two-woman show, such is the space the sisters claim, with Yovich’s pugnacious sprightliness complementing Crombie’s stately control. The masterstroke of Stephen Curtis’s set, that aforementioned spew carpet, also anchors the sound. The band, a cracking female three-piece, is highly personable despite constraints. Tersely instructed to shut up when they dare ask if they can come, they play with the sort of gusto that makes you wonder how they’ll last the season. It’s pub rock with lyrics part narrative, part declarative and, of course, more than anything, the blazing voices of the sisters, Yovich belting and keening across Crombie’s smoky purr. A fourth member joins the band at the end with a twist that manages – just – to not be corny.

My only gripe is that the CD features just five songs, excluding my favourite, ‘Betty Boo’, a corker of a punk tune. The image of Barbara kicking and screaming it on her back on the couch will stay with me a long time. Barbara and the Camp Dogs has legs, will travel, to other places on this continent and hopefully beyond, maybe even to the land of cinema, in the footsteps of its forebears The Sapphires and Bran Nue Dae, if the world can’t resist these fierce black sisters.

Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor is a Sydney-based author and performance artist. Her books include Suck My Toes and Strange Museums. Her latest novel, Indelible Ink, won the 2011 Age Book of the Year Award.

Elaine Crombie (left) and Ursula Yovich in Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Photo by Brett Boardman.

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