Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

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First edition

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is an Australian play written by Ray Lawler and first performed at the Union Theatre in Melbourne on 28 November 1955. The play is considered to be the most significant in Australian theatre history, and a "turning point",[1] openly and authentically portraying distinctly Australian life and characters. It was one of the first truly naturalistic "Australian" theatre productions.

It was originally published by Angus & Robertson, before moving to Fontana Press and then Currency Press


The play is set in Australia, in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton and it details the events of the summer of 1953, in the lives of six central characters. The structure of the play is such that the nature of these characters and their situation and history is not revealed immediately, but rather gradually established as the story unfolds. By the end, the story and all its facets have been indirectly explained.

The summer that the story spans marks the 17th year of an annual tradition in the lives of the characters, wherein two masculine sugarcane cutters, Arthur "Barney" Ibbot and Reuben "Roo" Webber, travel south to Melbourne for five months of frivolity and celebration with two city women, Olive Leech and Nancy (Roo bringing with him as a gift for Olive a kewpie doll, hence the name of the play). One of the women, Nancy, has apparently married some months before, and she is not present in the play, so in her place Olive has invited Pearl Cunningham to partake in the tradition. The other women present in the play are Kathie "Bubba" Ryan, a 22-year-old girl who has been coveting Olive and Nancy's lifestyle from her neighbouring house almost all her life, and Emma Leech, Olive's cynical, irritable, but wise mother.

As the play progresses, it becomes obvious that, for many collective reasons, this summer is different from others; it is full of tensions, strains to recreate lost youth, and from what is said of previous years, not a fraction of the fun that others have been. Steadily things become worse; Roo is revealed to be broke and is forced to take a job in a paint factory. He is disillusioned with his age and weaknesses, while relations between Barney and him are in doubt, due to a recent question of loyalty. The situation is agitated in part by Pearl's uptight indignation and refusal to accept the lifestyle she is being presented with as "proper" or "decent".

The play ends with a bitter fight between Olive and Roo after he proposes marriage to her and she is affronted, threatened by the prospect of any lifestyle other than the one to which she is accustomed. In the final scene, the two men leave together, the summer prematurely ended and the characters' futures uncertain.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is part of a trilogy generally referred to as the Doll Trilogy; the story of The Doll is preceded by the prequels Kid Stakes (1975), set in 1937, which tells the story of the first year of the tradition and the origin of the gift of the Kewpie doll, and Other Times (1976), which is set in 1945 and includes most of the same characters.



The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll had its world premiere on 28 November 1955, where it opened at the Union Theatre in Melbourne. This production of the play was directed by John Sumner and featured the following cast:

  • Roma Johnston as Pearl Cunningham
  • Fenella Maguire as Kathy "Bubba" Ryan
  • June Jago as Olive Leech
  • Ray Lawler as Barney Ibbot
  • Carmel Dunn as Emma Leech
  • Noel Ferrier as Roo Webber
  • Malcolm Billings as Johnnie Dowd


The play opened in Sydney, approximately two months later, on 10 January 1956, this time with significant changes to its cast:[2]

  • Madge Ryan as Pearl Cunningham
  • Fenella Maguire as Kathie "Bubba" Ryan
  • June Jago as Olive Leech
  • Ray Lawler as Barney Ibbot
  • Ethel Gabriel as Emma Leech
  • Lloyd Berrell as Roo Webber
  • John Llewellyn as Johnnie Dowd

Country tour[edit]

On 28 January 1956 a thirteen-week country tour of the play was announced, commencing on 14 February. The play toured New South Wales and Queensland, returning to Sydney for an encore season, and featured the following cast:

  • Yvonne Lewis as Bubba Ryan
  • Jacqueline Kott as Pearl Cunningham
  • June Jago as Olive Leech
  • Robert Levis as Barney Ibbot
  • Dorothy Whiteley as Emma Leech
  • Kenneth Warren as Roo Webber
  • Keith Buckley as Johnnie Dowd

United Kingdom[edit]

After the final Sydney show of the play's country tour, The Doll moved to the United Kingdom, where it spent two weeks showing in Nottingham, Liverpool and Edinburgh before opening in London on 30 April 1957, with the following cast:[3]

  • Fenella Maguire as Bubba Ryan
  • Madge Ryan as Pearl Cunningham
  • June Jago as Olive Leech
  • Ray Lawler as Barney Ibbot
  • Ethel Gabriel as Emma Leech
  • Kenneth Warren as Roo Webber
  • Richard Pratt as Johnnie Dowd

New York[edit]

Encouraged by its wholehearted reception in Australia and Britain, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll took a trip to America, where audiences and critics were rather underwhelmed with the production, most likely due to drastic cultural differences.[citation needed]. The play opened in New York City on 23 January 1958, with no changes made to the cast. The Doll only ran for a five-week season in America.[4]

However, in 1967, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll featuring an all-black cast, was produced to great acclaim as one of four plays in the inaugural season of The Negro Ensemble Company with an international bill that included, Kongi's Harvest by Wole Soyinka, Song of the Lusitanian Bogey by Peter Weiss, and Daddy Goodness by American playwright Richard Wright.

Film adaptation[edit]

After continuing to tour Australia through 1958, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was adapted by Leslie Norman for Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions – whose first film had been Marty with Ernest Borgnine – for United Artists in 1959. The film was retitled Season of Passion for the American market.[5] This decision was severely lamented by some fans of the play, whose complaints were rooted in three essential criticisms:[citation needed]

  • The "Americanisation" of the text, namely the casting of American actor Ernest Borgnine, who played his character (Roo) with an American accent. Others have thought the film was a recruiting film for migrants with the Englishman John Mills as Barney and Alan García as Dino, an Italian friend and fellow cane cutter who does not feature in the play. The female leads were played by Anne Baxter and Angela Lansbury, though the film featured many Australian actors.
  • It was set in Sydney rather than Melbourne.
  • The drastic changes to key plot points, namely the alternative, "happy" ending that the 1959 film adaptation entailed. This alternate ending was considered by some to be representative of a dire misunderstanding of the play and its message, and by others an attempt to make the film an international success at the box office and critical acclaim similar to the kitchen sink realism of Marty. The producers also added a comedy sequence where a young girl attempted to trick Roo in a tent at Luna Park.

1964 British TV adaptation[edit]

The play was adapted for British TV in 1964 as part of Thursday Theatre.[6] The cast was:

1979 Australian TV adaptation[edit]

A version of the play was filmed in 1979, directed by Rod Kinnear.[7]

Most recent productions[edit]

Notable productions include:[8]

  • 1965: Sydney's Q Theatre staged a production of The Doll, in which Ethel Gabriel, a member of the cast for nearly a decade, gave her last performance as Emma
  • 1973: Sydney's Nimrod Theatre Company staged a production with Bill Hunter[9]
  • 1974: Queensland Theatre Company staged a production
  • 1977: Melbourne Theatre Company revived the play as part of The Doll Trilogy (featuring prequels Kid Stakes and Other Times)[10]
  • August 1988: Brisbane's La Boite Theatre Company staged play, directed by Don Batchelor.
  • 1983: Melbourne's Australian Nouveau Theatre (Antill) directed by Jean-Pierre Mignon
  • 1985: Sydney Theatre Company revived the play as part of The Doll Trilogy directed by Rodney Fisher (which also played in Melbourne)
  • 1988: Sydney Theatre Company production travelled overseas to New York[11]
  • 1990: Birmingham Repertory Theatre in the UK directed by John Adams
  • 1995: Melbourne Theatre Company directed by Robyn Nevin, which also played a national tour through 1995 and 1996
  • 2008: Brisbane's La Boite Theatre Company directed by Sean Mee.
  • 2011: Belvoir production directed by Neil Armfield which toured Sydney, Melbourne (for Melbourne Theatre Company), Brisbane (for Queensland Theatre Company), Wollongong and Canberra through 2011 and 2012[12]
  • 2015: State Theatre Company of South Australia at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre directed by Georgie Brookman[13]
  • 2020: Upcoming production by State Opera of South Australia in Her Majesty's Theatre, directed by Joseph Mitchell

The iPad app[edit]

In 2013 Currency Press released an iPad app which charts the 57-year history of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.[14]

The app collates archival material from the first production on 28 November 1955 up until the most recent Belvoir production, which toured the east coast of Australia in 2011/12. Material was sourced from a range of archives and institutions along the east coast of Australia.

The app features interviews with -



  1. ^ Peter Fitzpatrick, 'After The Doll: Australian Drama Since 1955', Edward Arnold Australia (1979), preface, vii
  2. ^ Production listing at AusStage
  3. ^ Production listing at AusStage
  4. ^ Listing of New York production at Internet Broadway Database
  5. ^ Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959) at IMDb
  6. ^ 1964 TV adaptation at IMDb
  7. ^ Summer of the Seventeenth Doll 1979 Australian TV] at Austlit
  8. ^ "AusStage - Summer of the Seventeenth Doll". Retrieved 27 May 2016.
  9. ^ Production details at AusStage
  10. ^ Production information at AusStage
  11. ^ "Australians Adrift in a World of Kewpie Dolls" by Stephen Holden, The New York Times, 30 July 1988]
  12. ^ Summer of the Seventeenth Doll at Belvoir St Theatre
  13. ^ "Home".
  14. ^ "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll iPad app – Now Available for iPad". AustLit. AustLit News. Retrieved 18 June 2013.
  15. ^ "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll". AusStage. Retrieved 18 June 2013.

External links[edit]