In November 2015, Ladies in Black had its world premiere at the QPAC Playhouse in a production by the Queensland Theatre Company. Soon after, it transferred to Melbourne for a limited season at the Southbank Theatre, and both the Queensland and Victorian runs enjoyed a strongly positive public and critical response. The musical went on to receive six Helpmann Award nominations, ultimately taking the prize for Best New Australian Work.
It’s fair to say, therefore, that Ladies in Black’s arrival in Sydney – the first stop on its 2017 national tour and the city that inspired its story – has been highly anticipated. The show is based on The Women in Black, the first novel written by the late Madeleine St John in 1993. Interestingly, the novel is soon to be given the film treatment by one of the country’s most accomplished directors, Bruce Beresford, and co-producers Sue Milliken and Allanah Ziterserman.
Ladies in Black harks back to the late 1950s, a time when the harbour city was transitioning into a worldly metropolis, fuelled by the arrival of European migrants and the new experiences and attitudes they bought from their former lives. The bulk of the action takes place in the fictional ‘Goodes’, billed as the city’s most prestigious department store. Lisa (played by Sarah Morrison), a wide-eyed and intelligent 17-year-old, begins a summer job at the store and soon befriends the lively characters of the Cocktail Frocks department. It’s an education of sorts for the young girl in the ways of the world.
Lisa’s keen intelligence means she’s determined to study at university and chase a path more ambitious – and uncertain – than her father (Greg Stone) expects her to take. That desire only becomes greater as a friendship develops between Lisa and the head of Goodes’ Model Gowns department, Magda (Natalie Gamsu), a Hungarian refugee whose influence leads the young girl to acquire a heightened taste for European culture and ideas.
Australian writer Carolyn Burns has penned a book for Ladies in Black that despite the slight nature of the initial premise – a tale of a young girl working in a Sydney department store over her summer break – ensures the musical is actually a work imbued with worthy prominent themes, including the relationship between parent and child; the virtues of multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion; and the need for every generation to challenge the status quo. All of these key themes are well articulated in Burns’ text through conversational exchanges that largely reflect an authentic Australian voice of the period. The humour is colloquial and delightful.
On the other hand, the music – a score comprising more than 20 original songs by highly acclaimed and admired singer and musician, Tim Finn – is less consistently successful in enhancing and developing the narrative, so that the music itself prompts us to ask some of the more pertinent questions raised by the themes at the crux of the story. There are some beautiful, richly melodic tunes that appear throughout the show, but some of the moments that should have impact (most significantly, the opening radio jingle-esque ‘I Got It at Goodes’ and the title track) fall flat, largely because they’re not musically substantial or lyrically interesting. In fact, the words in a number of the musical tracks are not lyrical enough, with an emphasis on insistent rhyming.
A further issue that compromises the impact of the musical pieces is the size of the performance space. In Queensland, QPAC Playhouse audiences of 850 people saw Ladies in Black. In Melbourne, the 500-seat Sumner Theatre hosted the Victorian season. Here, the Sydney Lyric, capable of accommodating more than 2,000, arguably robs the 11-performer musical of some of the magic that came with its staging in more intimate spaces. That’s particularly apparent during the show’s ‘bigger’ scenes, where the relatively small cast is unable to reproduce group vocals of the depth we’ve come to expect of the 20+ performer ensemble casts we’re accustomed to seeing on the mainstage. And the space itself seems to expose some of the weaker vocal performances.
That aside, a fine cast has been assembled for Ladies in Black’s national tour. Morrison has endless appeal as Lisa, the bright young woman with grand plans, wonderfully balancing curiosity, kindness and steadfastness in her characterisation, while delivering sweet and sound vocals. Gamsu is terrific as the piquant and vivacious Magda, embodying the new and the exotic possibilities to which eyes are opened when one welcomes and embraces new ideas. As Lisa’s experienced colleagues in the Cocktail Frocks department, Ellen Simpson and Madeleine Jones are strong, engaging the audience in their stories of women on the cusp of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement. High calibre performances are given right across the board.
Gabriela Tylesova’s costuming sees each of the ladies impeccably attired both in and outside of their department store garb. From Christian Dior’s iconic full-skirted dresses in vibrant pastel colours, to European couture gowns, Tylesova has succeeded in reflecting the era with wonderful attention to detail. Her set, defined by several mirrored columns and tall blue drapes, is modest in scale but functions effectively throughout. A turntable (something that’s come to be a feature in a number of Simon Phillips-led shows) is well utilised. David Walters’ simple lighting design makes sure onstage elements – particularly Tylesova’s costumes – are shown off to full effect, making effective use of a cyclorama and, occasionally, projected image.
At the show’s helm, Phillips keeps the piece moving at a fairly swift pace, and has worked well with the cast to ensure their interactions feel organic and the characters they’ve created are recognisable, true-to-life representations of Australians of a bygone era. He’s also succeeded in capturing the grandness of occasion or sense of event once associated with city department store visits, in conjunction with Tylesova’s design work. Phillips’ use of split stage for particular sequences is appropriate and his staging of a New Year’s Eve party scene, relying almost entirely on silhouettes, is lovely.
Most importantly, though, Ladies in Black is a show with genuine heart. It has problems, but it’s nevertheless a musical deserving of a place on the theatrical landscape in 2017. It’s a solid history lesson on the Australia of six decades ago, where parochial attitudes to women pervaded, but also where attitudes to newcomers to the country were perhaps no less evolved than those that, today, continue to be shared by many. In that context, Ladies in Black has the potential to crucially remind audiences of the enrichment to life that comes from embracing diversity, and that opening our minds is beneficial not to some, but to all.
LADIES IN BLACK – 2017 NATIONAL TOUR DETAILS
Brisbane – Playhouse, QPAC
28 January – 19 February 2017
Phone: 136 246 or queenslandtheatre.com.au
Melbourne – Regent Theatre
25 February – 18 March 2017
Phone: 1300 111 011
Canberra – Canberra Theatre Centre
27 March – 2 April 2017
Phone: (02) 6275 2700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au