Ladies In Black is a new Australian musical with music and lyrics by Tim Finn and book by Carolyn Burns. The story is based on the Madeleine St John’s novel The Women In Black.
The story revolves around “Lisa”, a Sydney teenager who gets a Christmas holiday job at the Goode’s department store (imagine David Jones). The year is 1959. Lisa is a hard working student who is awaiting the results of her Leaving Certificate with hopes and dreams of being accepted into university, despite her father’s lack of support. Lisa’s job in the Ladies Cocktail Frocks of Goodes introduces her to an interesting array of characters who open Lisa’s eyes to life beyond the comforts of her own family home.
Fellow Goodes co-worker, Magda (Christen O’Leary), takes an interest in young Lisa and introduces her not only to her husband, Stefan (Greg Stone), but to new foods, new friends and a new way of life. Fay (Naomi Price) is unlucky in love until she meets Hungarian refugee Rudi (Bobby Fox) and allows herself to actually kiss and fall in love with a Continental. Patty (Lucy Maunder) and husband Frank (Andrew Broadbent) are struggling with not only sexual dysfunction and infertility, but more importantly with communication. Miss Jacobs (Deidre Rubinstein) has been working at Goodes all her life and while her co-workers talk about her broken heart after losing her sweetheart in the First World War, no one even knows her first name.
The supporting and ensemble cast play multiple roles but well enough to not cause any confusion of identity. The range of ages, shapes and sizes amongst the cast brings a lovely authenticity to the show.
Sarah Morrison is delightfully endearing as Lisa. You can’t help but find yourself cheering her on and hoping things will work out the way you have predicted they will. She is the heroine in this retro Australian fairytale.
Lisa’s parents, played by Carita Farrer Spencer and Greg Stone, live in an era when mothers stayed home to raise the children and look after the home, while the husband worked and earned the money. Girls went on to secretarial school, not university. The characters fit a 50’s stereotype that makes a point but keeps the show light, entertaining and engaging.
Lisa’s desire to study and discover herself and her world, but still remain respectful to the parents who raised her, makes her even more charming. There is transformation of gentle awakening and discovery, that keeps Lisa true to herself as she builds in confidence but not defiance.
The story covers everything from dating and romance, to infertility and marital dysfunction, inequality and racism. Director Simon Phillips has taken a light and tender approach to these characters and delivered a beautiful and heart-warming musical that works. There is certainly plenty to ponder and consider, if nothing other than how times have changed, but it doesn’t create a sense of heaviness. Instead, audiences leave smiling and feeling good.
The music by Tim Finn is well constructed with catchy tunes, lovely harmonies and some very witty lyrics, from the jingle of ‘Got It At Goodes’ to the soul-stirring ‘Tomorrow Becomes Today’ and every song in between. Musical director Guy Simpson delivers superb orchestrations. Choreography by Andrew Hallsworth works cleverly with the songs and ‘He’s A Bastard’ had the audience in hysterics. Hallsworth has choreographed to the strengths of his cast, with some skilful dancing shown by Bobby Fox.
The attractive set works well in the most part, although at times the pillars reduced the available dance space and made the stage feel unnecessarily small and constricted in certain moments. The pillars also risk blocking sight lines and certain events taking place toward the side of the stage were actually difficult to see (no spoilers). This could easily be rectified and is a small problem in an otherwise high quality production.
One of the highlights of Ladies In Black is the stunning costumes by Gabriela Tylesova and the Lisette dress, in particular, is simply incredible. Ladies In Black should be compulsory viewing for any student studying costume design.
The only disappointment of the night was not being able to purchase a cast recording of these brilliant new tunes. These are songs I would happily listen to again and hopefully someone has the sense to release one.
Ladies In Black is a quality, home grown production that Australia can be proud of.
Buy a ticket before this limited season is sold out.
Photo Credit: Rob Macoll