Review: Barbara and the Camp Dogs

Half rock musical half gig slices straight to the heart

By Bradley Storer 

As the audience shuffled into the Merlyn Theatre for opening night of Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine’s stunning musical play Barbara and the Camp Dogs, they were greeted with bar stools, faded couches and blackboards advertising happy-hour specials and upcoming bands. The well-worn atmosphere of a typical Aussie pub was contained entirely within the space.

Director Lecticia Cáceres uses the setting to represent both the fictitious band’s regular venues and a microcosm of Australian culture. The classic Aussie pub is the perfect liminal space to explore this story that crosses the landscape of the entire country and confronts the mythos embedded in our very culture.

Barbara (Yovich) and Rene (Elaine Crombie) are two Indigenous siblings who eke out their living in Sydney by playing live shows and singing with their back-up band, the Camp Dogs. What starts out as a charming comedy with Yovich and Crombie careening from one incident to the next while letting loose their explosively powerful vocals, becomes a gut-wrenching examination of the bonds of family and the devastating consequences of colonisation and its impact on current and future generations of Indigenous Australians. Rock music (a style we must remember was first appropriated by mainstream white culture from people of colour) feels like the ideal medium to convey the pain, tragedy and resilience of these characters.

Yovich as the eponymous Barbara delivers a performance of titanic scale: commandingly charismatic, ferociously funny and yet undeniably wounded. As Barbara travels from Sydney to Darwin and further on to the rural town of Katherine, we journey deeper and deeper into her character’s complex psyche and the roots of her traumas. Yovich is so thoroughly and authentically immersed in the character that it is, at times, almost unbearable to watch. When Yovich unleashes her searing and soulful voice in song (co-composed by both Yovich and Valentine), she slices straight to the heart.

Rene, as the calmer sister, is fantastic foil to the belligerent Barbara. Though Rene is no wallflower, with Crombie playing her with a personality and presence just as big as Barbara despite having a cooler head to balance things out. When the pair lift their voices together, they threaten to tear the roof off the theatre with their sheer passion and power. Troy Jungaji Brady expertly provides backing vocals, sound balancing and discreet mic transfers throughout the show and is granted an extra special opportunity which I won’t spoil here. When Brady’s voice is allowed to fly free it is possibly the most powerful of the entire cast as it reverberates in every corner of the space, and his gentle presence rounds out the trio perfectly.

The Camp Dogs, the backing band for Barbara’s pub-gig career and for the show in general, are an excellent trio of female-identifying musicians who bring brilliant light and shade to both the heavier rock numbers as well as the lighter, emotional sections. Sorcha Albuquerque seductively shreds on lead guitar, drawing the audience in during her massive solo. Michelle Vincent ably handles drums, with Jessica Dunn pulling double duty as both bass player and musical director. Karen Norris’ lighting design invaluably navigates the multitude of spaces Barbara and Renee encounter in their journey.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs performs throughout February, not long after Australia Day reminding us how we still grapple with the effects of colonisation. The show confronts, on a deeply personal and individual level, the dark and uncomfortable truth that lies at the heart of Australia: the continual structural oppression of our indigenous people which feels not only inescapable, but an inherent part of our cultural identity.

The tension to reconcile this reality with the move towards healing is the central struggle of this piece and the reason why this show is not only a must-see for theatre goers, but for any Australian.

Barbara and the Camp Dogs runs 7 February – 3 March at Malthouse Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on (03) 9685 5111.

Photograph by Brett Boardman featuring Elaine Crombie and Ursula Yovich.