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REVIEW: Barbara and the Camp Dogs by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine

Ursula Yovich, writer and star of Barbara and the Camp Dogs
Photo: Brett Boardman

 “I am angry. That’s what rock is supposed to be. Full of pain.”

Barbara and her sister René front a band called The Camp Dogs when Barb can book gigs, which is sometimes just busking. Meanwhile, René loves an audience so much, she does a Singing Sheilas cover show at the casino. They’d love to have steady work together, but they know what the music industry is like. That’s where the anger comes in.

The Malthouse audience (“they’ll touch anything”) enters the Merlyn theatre to find it’s been turned into a low-rent music venue, complete with sticky carpet, a chalk board to announce the band and the happy hour specials, and some terrible furniture to seat some lucky audience members. We’re here for the gig and the stories in between the songs, but there’s more to Barbara and the Camp Dogs than listening to rock’n’roll in a space that feels like a hipster pub.

When René talks about anger early on, it’s a laugh line. She’s rolling her eyes at her head-strong sister yelling at the venue managers that pay them and people in the industry that might be able to help them. René doesn’t want to rock the boat – at least not until they get a gig on a yacht, which Barb might have only booked because the owners thought they were Indian.

Barbara knows, though, that as good as she and her sister are, the music industry isn’t looking for new Aboriginal talent to play bigger venues. “They pretend it’s all about merit when it’s really all about what they think they can sell to suburban Sally and her dick-shaped hairbrush.”

The show we’re watching isn’t just the drama and comedy of these two sisters’ lives though; some of it is a pure rock show, with driving songs of love, passion and outrage. Songs borne of everything these two have been through – sharpened by Barbara’s anger.

Writers Ursula Yovich (who also plays Barbara) and Alana Valentine have joined with musician Adm Ventoura to craft the songs which rock out in the venue – sometimes to rhythmic clapping and stomping of feet and sometimes to quiet reflection. The concert part of the show is worth the price of admission alone, but the behind-the-scenes moments elevate this to something truly special.

Elaine Crombie (René) and Ursula Yovich (Barbara) are charming, hilarious and devastating in their portrayal of two sisters, whose family life has been rough and who can’t quite make a living at what they love. Their powerful singing gives way to equally striking dramatic performances as they travel to Darwin for a gig (which the poor Camp Dogs have to pay to get to) and then hit the road to visit their dying mother.

Anger is the driving force behind Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Barbara knows that being the best singer/songwriter in a country that has systematically oppressed its Aboriginal population means that she’ll always struggle. She and her sister sing of standing in the sun and not giving an inch, but as their journey progresses, we can see that their country continues to stand in their way.

It’s often said that comedy is used as a trojan horse to get audiences to hear uncomfortable truths. There are plenty of laughs in Barbara and the Camp Dogs but the real trojan horse here is the rock music. The audience is whooping and cheering the singing and the on-stage band, but slowly, surely and expertly – under the superb direction of Leticia Cáceres – we are let in on a story of pain and anger. Another wake-up call for an audience and a population and a country that should have heard this and done something about it a long ago.

Anger. It’s what rock is supposed to be. It’s what makes this show come alive. An outstanding achievement.



The set of Barbara and the Camp Dogs
Photo: Brett Boardman

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