By Tara Ramsay
Entering into the Billie Brown Theatre to see ‘Barbara and The Camp Dogs’ I notice a familiar smell lingering in the air, it’s a mix of stale cigarettes and damp carpet and all of a sudden I am transported back to my younger years, where most of my time was spent at seedy pubs, taking in live music. As I look around and take in the set, I see that I am sitting in one of those dingy pubs I spent far too many nights in and that set designer Stephen Curtis has left no empty beer glass unturned. The stage is raised with band gear ready to rock, there is a huge blackboard on a wall in the background with CAMP DOGS splashed across it and gig times announced. There are mix and match tables and chairs atop the musty carpet, where a few lucky audience members sat, and in the foreground a comfy looking velveteen couch and coffee table.
The Camp Dogs – made up of musicians Jessica Dunn (Performing Musical director/bass), Sorcha Albuquerque (Lead guitar) and Michelle Vincent (Drums) are the first to enter and start to warm up the crowd before Rene’ (Elaine Crombie) and Barbara (played by understudy Shakira Clanton) hit the stage at full throttle and belt out the first of many high energy songs. In between song breaks or ‘gigs’ we get a glimpse into the lives of sisters Rene’ and Barbara, who utilise the couch at the front of the stage as their home. Barbara is a force to be reckoned with both on stage and 'off.' She is a volcano ready to erupt that is already spitting molten lava and doesn’t care who is in her way when it lands, Rene’ although she too is strong and feisty, certainly felt like the yang to Barbara’s yin and as the story unfolds we learn that Barbara’s anger has been brewing for many years and for many reasons, which I won’t give away.
I loved the audience engagement, especially at the beginning, the quick wit, occasional cuss word and flirtatious energy of both Rene and Barbara had me, and most of the audience in stitches. The two play well off each other and I was easily convinced that they were real life sisters, reminding me many times, especially when bickering, of me and my own siblings. We learn that there is a family emergency that they must get to Darwin for and this begins the road trip, although Barbara is reluctant to return up north, they make enough money from their band gig on a fancy yacht to get flights. It’s a hilariously awkward moment when the band chime in and ask how they are going to get there and Barbara quips ‘Why are you speaking, no one listens to live music anymore’ - but don’t worry the band make it and there are plenty more songs to be heard. The music perfectly mimics the theatre throughout and the songs, written by Ursula Yovich, Alana Valentine and Adm Ventoura range from rock to jazz, with a little punk thrown in.
The sisters don’t find what they are looking for in Darwin and wrangle a bike to continue on their road trip to their hometown of Katherine, the motorbike/exercise bike with the sidecar trip was one of my favourite moments in the show, I had tears in my eyes from laughter and the physical comedy used to portray the bumpy bike trip was choreographed to perfection
It’s in Katherine where everything starts to unravel and we see Volcano Barbara reach peak performance. The comedy I had been so enthralled with had suddenly turned into a heart wrenching drama, with monologues from both Barbara and Rene’ that had me holding me my breath and songs that brought on tears once again but this time, not from laughter. We do get more music and Barbara’s birth brother Joseph (Troy Jungaji Brady) enters the scene and sings in perfect harmony with his sister, his character is quiet and warm and much like Rene’ the complete opposite of Barbara.
For all it’s fun and comedy this show does an even better job of tugging at the heart strings with so many emotion-packed scenes that were so honest they hurt. It also brings to light tension of underlying social issues that the Indigenous community face and, importantly, how it impacts the younger generation of Indigenous Australians. Writers Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine along with Director Leticia Caceres have truly weaved a beautiful story and I suggest you go see ‘Barbara and the Camp Dogs’ supported by Queensland Theatre, for a laugh or a cry.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.