Blues sound for a new generation

HAVING spent the first 12 of her 19 years a very long way from the sandy beaches of Australia - in Saudi Arabia, to be precise - Ashleigh Cummings can be forgiven for not knowing much about surfies or their southern Sydney stamping ground.

So when the young actor, best known as Phryne Fisher's maid and Robyn in the film Tomorrow, When the War Began, was asked to audition for the role of Debbie in the new adaptation of Puberty Blues, she went straight to the source.

Reading the landmark 1979 novel by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette, she kept thinking that it was a piece of non-fiction.

She was shocked by the chauvinism that was heaped upon the book's protagonists, Debbie and Sue, 13-year-olds who join a surfie gang and are initiated into their tribal culture of sex and drugs.

''I had a very different adolescence to those girls,'' says Cummings, whose medico parents worked and lived in the Middle East until seven years ago. ''The social attitudes of the time were very much in conflict with what I grew up with and the values that my parents instilled in me.''

Lette's description of the book's ''brutal sexual economy'' is perfectly apt, Cummings says.

''It's tribal, it's animalistic, but the girls aren't entirely aware of that, which is the thing that made it so haunting for me.''

Unlike the book or the 1981 film, the year when the mini-series takes place (it's assumed to be the mid-to-late 1970s) and the ages of Debbie and Sue are not specified. In the book they were 13, in the film 16 (to circumvent potential censorship issues), but Cummings imagines her Debbie to be closer to 13 than 16. ''She starts out with quite distinct, kid-ish qualities. At the beginning she is very much a kid, loose-limbed and sways around a bit, that's how I picked her, and then at the end of the show she matures emotionally and physically and realises that getting into the Greenhills gang isn't everything she thought it would be. She changes quite a bit.''

Being an eight-hour drama, there is a distinct story arc for her character, as well as fleshed-out trajectories for characters who were peripheral or absent from the book, such as Debbie's school-principal mother (Claudia Karvan) and buttoned-up father (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor), and Sue's roguish father (Dan Wyllie) and mother (Susie Porter).

''I think it [the mini-series] gives a cross-section of the '70s and '70s culture and it really delves into the social and political environment of the time,'' Cummings says.

Front and centre of the mini-series is Debbie's friendship with Sue. ''It's prevalent in the book anyway. These two girls were so close they were of one mind. You see in many scenes that they're saying things out loud to one another, it's like a conversation with oneself. It's a true love, I think.'' (Incidentally, the real-life Carey and Lette had a very public falling out.)

Despite the gulfs between her own upbringing and Debbie's, the 1970s and the present-day, Cummings believes that Puberty Blues speaks to some universal experiences of adolescence.

''We're looking at the era in retrospect and we haven't tainted it with any judgments. I would hope that society would be able to click onto the rights and wrongs, but it's really about people making their own decisions and we're asking people to make their own moral judgments about the show.

''It's not really like they're doing anything malicious or in an evil way [back then]; it was part of their culture and life and understanding.''

Many of the book's themes are as relevant today as then, Cummings believes: fitting in, wanting to be accepted, independence and opportunities for women.

''I grew up in the Middle East and Mum instilled in me values of independence. I've always been comfortable in myself and haven't had the need to fit into any other group because I've had the support of my family. Feminism has brought opportunities for women to the forefront, so I think attitudes have changed. But I still witness some of that male brutality in my own world.''

At least one of the book's more confronting moments, an abortion, is not included in the mini-series, but the topic is touched upon.

''There are so many agendas addressed in this show,'' Cummings says, ''which is what makes it so versatile and amazing and I think will draw in the audience. Sex was part of the ritual of [Debbie and Sue's] lives; it was what they had to do, it was a rite of passage.

''We focus more on the emotion and the human storyline. To be honest, I was surrounded by such a fantastic cast and crew that it felt like family. Nothing felt confronting.''

Since finishing school in 2010, Cummings has not been short of good roles. She was nominated for the AFI Young Actor Award that year for Tomorrow, When the War Began, has performed with the Sydney Theatre Company in its production of Our Town and played opposite Essie Davis in the popular ABC drama Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, which will return for a second season next year.

Between acting, she is also undertaking philosophy studies at university.

''I love telling stories and sharing that with people. I love being able to inform people indirectly through characters because I know that connecting characters and stories on screen will help me enormously throughout my life and I hope to comfort people in that same sense.

''I would never have investigated surfing before this and I met such a cornucopia of people and experiences that I feel I've learned so much through understanding other characters and other lives.''

She says she is drawn to ''meaty'' roles she can bring something new to. ''I know that sounds like something every actor says, but it's for a reason. When you play different roles you learn from that. It opens doors and exposes your emotional range.''

Puberty Blues premieres Wednesday at 8.30pm on Channel Ten.

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