Barbara has been trying to make it as a musician in Sydney for a long time now. The city is harsh and it’s hard to find the sense of community she craves. She plays gigs with her cousin René and her band the Camp Dogs. She gets into fights. But now her mum is sick and it’s time to head home.
And so begins Barbara and the Camp Dogs, part music gig, part road story and all parts electrifying. The performance is raw and intimate, as funny as it is heartbreaking. Themes of family, love, loss, identity and the treatment of Aboriginal people are explored through both song and spoken word.
The script written by Ursula Yovich (who plays Barbara) and Alana Valentine crackles with wit, vitriol and tenderness. The songs, written by Yovich, Valentine and Adm Ventura, are the same, adding a heightened layer of emotion to the narrative as they punctuate and drive the story. The direction by Leticia Cáceres is subtle and clever. Both Barbara and René’s voices in and out of song are beautiful and powerful.
The action takes place in an intimate gig venue. The carpet looks sticky and beer-stained, a grimy velvet couch is used to great effect throughout the performance. Audience members sit at coaster strewn tables on stage, often becoming a part of the performance as Barbara and René navigate their journey home to the top end.
I had the privilege of speaking with Elaine Crombie about her experience of the show and her role of as René. ‘I have been acting for twenty years and this role is definitely one of the best roles, if not the best role that I’ve played in theatre,’ she told me over the phone last week. On why the show has resonated with her so much she told me ‘it’s working with Ursula, I feel like we both have very powerful, strong voices. Not just singing voices but we are strong in our convictions when acting. I feel like I am a really great support for Ursula in order for this story to be told.’
And it’s true, René does provide the perfect foil for Barbara, tempering her rages and providing her with an anchor to her family and her past. The physicality of both Barbara and René is striking and also complimentary. Barbara is small and muscular, a ball of energy waiting to be unleashed while René is tall and voluptuous and much more restrained in the way she expresses her emotions. Both are at home in their bodies and unashamed of their sexuality.
While the performance begins comparatively lightly, the ending roars home with a blistering critique on Australian culture and the way we have treated our Indigenous peoples. Standing atop a coffee table, her body convulsing with grief and rage, Barbara tells us: ‘This is the meanest, pettiest, most ungenerous country in the world. Because at the heart of this country is a theft, and now the whole place crouches, waiting, calculating about when it is going to be stolen back from them. Because nobody fears being thieved from as much as a pack of thieves.’
Barbara and the Camp Dogs is powerful, moving and thought-provoking piece of theatre and one that I heartily recommend.
Barbara and the Camp Dogs
Canberra Theatre Centre
Thursday 30th May – Saturday 1 June