Rock musicals that really rock, that marry the visceral and emotional qualities of the gig with theatrical storytelling, are like hen’s teeth.
I can think of only one produced in Sydney in recent years – Hedwig and the Angry Inch, back in 2006 – that successfully straddled both worlds.
Here, at long last, is another. Co-written by its star, Ursula Yovich, and playwright Alana Valentine (Parramatta Girls, Letters to Lindy), Barbara and the Camp Dogs rocks you to your core – as a human, as an Australian.
It shares some thematic territory with Hedwig. Both are focused on outsiders from broken homes drawn into the music scene. Each is a journey story. Both have a strong musical and emotional partnership at their core, and in each, the title character wrenches redemption from crisis.
Two Aboriginal women, Barbara and René (Elaine Crombie), have been brought up as sisters by René’s mum. Both have become singers in Sydney. Barbara works the pub scene, picking up work where she can and burning bridges shortly thereafter. Rene sings in a “Singing Sheilas” covers band in a casino. They share a deep but fractious relationship governed largely by Barbara’s volcanic temperament.
René is “as sweet as a smile, as filthy as a public toilet,” according to Barbara.
Barbara is “the arse-burning, eye-watering fart you do in a room full of strangers,” says René, “the face-filling burp you make in a room full of haters.”
René receives word that their mum is in a Darwin hospital. She insists that Barbara – who is enormously reluctant to revisit her past and her country – travel with her.
René prevails. On money earned impersonating an Indian musical act and astride a borrowed motorbike, the sisters hit the highway.
Delivered in a mix of direct address monologues, dramatic scenes and original songs (composed by Yovich, Valentine and Adm Ventoura), Barbara and the Camp Dogs is a fast-moving, incident-strewn adventure that whisks its audience from a Sydney pub to the Northern Territory and on a journey into our national shame, which Barbara so fierily embodies.
Leticia Caceres’ direction is assured and dynamic. The performances are superb: Yovich’s Barbara is appealing yet volatile. Anger burns in everything she says and does. Crombie’s René is warm and deliciously wicked.
Stephen Curtis’ design tranforms Belvoir Upstairs into a pub bandroom. A lucky few in the audience share the same space as the actors and become, in effect, part of the scenery.
The band (drummer Michelle Vincent, guitarist Debbie Yap and bassist/musical director Jessica Dunn) is tight and fluent in rock, funk and soul, with Dunn’s bass-playing bringing some jazz world sonic sophistication to the sound. Present throughout and often messed with, the Camp Dogs are very much part of the show.
The songs are very strong (only Tick Sista strikes as sub-par) and the leads sing up a storm: Yovich in the incendiary Betty Boo (“I will not be reduced by you / Your narrow, shallow, muddy view”); Crombie smoulders in the early Mystery and burns in Shock Me Awake. The show has a stone cold classic in Chained to You, a burning soul number sung spectacularly in the first instance by Yovich and Troy Brady, who swaps his roadie hat to play Barbara’s estranged brother.
Barbara and the Camp Dogs is a rare piece, one that slaps you in the face then brings you to your feet. Powerful stuff.