LADIES IN BLACK - SYDNEY FESTIVAL
LADIES IN BLACK, Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival at the Lyric Theatre, 7-15 January 2017. Photography by Lisa Tomasetti.
A full blown, fully grown new Australian musical is a cause for celebration and it’s exhilarating and appropriate that Ladies in Black is the opening production of Wesley Enoch’s first Sydney Festival. Its history – from novel to stage – is as vivid as the show itself.
Ladies in Black originates from Madeleine St John’s first novel Women in Black, set in the late ’50s and published in 1993. Described as “a comedy of manners” it tells of young lower middle-class Lesley who lands a coveted temp job in frocks at Goodes (DJs) department store. However, far from a career (until marriage of course) in retail, she is actually waiting for her exam results and dreaming of going to Sydney University and becoming a poet.
An unlikely subject for musical theatre but first composer Tim Finn thought otherwise and then, having passed on the book to director Simon Phillips, so did he. Phillips’ wife, playwright and dramaturg Carolyn Burns, clearly agreed and between them began the long process of workshops and more workshops.
By 2013 both the Queensland Theatre Company and government had been persuaded on board with the resources necessary for full development. The show premiered in Brisbane, went on to a triumphant season with Melbourne Theatre Company and now arrives in what is really its home town trailing five star reviews and accolades and with a further tour to Canberra then back to Brisbane and Melbourne in its immediate future.
Is it worth the fuss? Yes. Ladies in Black is an unlikely, unusual and ultimately delightful show at whose core is real life and real heart. On the surface it’s a confection of gorgeous frocks and period detail (designer Gabriela Tylesova) that decorates a series of character sketches that surround the central figure of young Lesley (Sarah Morrison).
She changes her name to Lisa when she goes to work at Goodes as the classic ugly duckling who will be a swan. It’s her declaration of war – of independence – from her background and stultifying dad (Greg Stone) who won’t countenance a daughter of his going to uni and getting ideas in her head.
Lisa’s mum (Carita Farrer Spencer) is the poignant figure of a woman of her post-war times: a wife who has never entertained the idea of ambition either for herself or her daughter, but fearfully recognises that the girl is cleverer than both her parents and will inevitably go far beyond them.
At first Lisa is a babe in the shot silk, taffeta and shantung woods with the more worldly sales girls, Fay (Ellen Simpson) and Patty (Madeleine Jones) and department supervisor Miss Cartwright (Kate Cole) dazzling her with their apparent sophistication. The transformation begins when Lisa is befriended by Magda (marvellous Natalie Gamsu) the formidable Hungarian whose rule over designer gowns is absolute.
The epitome of style and substance, Magda and her husband Stefan (Greg Stone again) introduce experience-hungry Lisa to salami, garlic, wine and the life of the mind, as befitted the role in Menzies’ Australia of European refugees. The politics and social standards of the day are slyly slipped into the frothy mix through Burns’ book: timorous Miss Jacobs (the always fine Trisha Noble) pretends a happy personal life but is a lonely woman whose love was lost to the war. Glamorous Fay has “a past” and fears that it will mean no “decent” man will marry her. In contrast, Patty has the man but her husband Frank (Tamlyn Henderson) has the classic ’50s Aussie male emotional capacity of a breeze block and when Patty fails to conceive he blames her. It turns out he’s sterile, so he gets roaring drunk and runs away with a mate to nurse his shame.
Fay, meanwhile, meets Rudi (hilarious Bobby Fox) when she daringly accompanies Lisa to Magda’s New Year’s Eve party. It leads to one of the show’s best songs – “I Just Kissed a Continental” – through which she and the company manage to say a whole lot about the attitude towards “refos” that has less affectionate and plain awful echoes in today’s Australia.
The other musical highlight (musical director of the sharp onstage band: David Young) is also another overtly social-political comment. “The Bastard Song” is gleefully grabbed and run with by the women in a very funny and heartfelt description of the males in their lives. Its much relished refrain is an ear-worm in itself: “They’re baaaaastards. Men are baaaastards...” In this context and many others, few would disagree.
Ladies in Black is a remarkable new work that deserves the praise already heaped upon it. While the music – original and no jukebox in sight – is more often workmanlike and painting by numbers than inspiring or memorable, the two numbers mentioned above are exceptional. The book is often witty as well as wry and in the end, wrests tears from all but the most stony-hearted.
The production itself is blessed with a terrific company of women, including Kathryn McIntyre and Kate Cole, and it’s a simple thrill to see so many – of all shapes, sizes and ages – on one stage. It’s vintage Simon Phillips as he deftly keeps the colour and movement aloft in a swirl of revolves, mirrored columns and nimble lighting states (designer David Walters). Performances aren’t neglected, however, and there is soul and honesty in the characters even though some are less defined and developed than others.
In his program notes, Simon Phillips writes, “...it defies so many of the rules of drama: its conflicts are minimal, the barriers facing the characters are scarcely life-threatening...” There is also, as he says, “a plethora of happy endings”! But he also observes that Madeleine St John saw “nothing mutually exclusive between feminism and femininity” and she “demolished xenophobia through celebration rather than counter-terrorism”.
And all of that is exactly what the show does. Women over 50 will be all too familiar with the story’s underbelly and it’s a clarion call to the younger ones: complacency might be Australia’s defining national characteristic but women should beware. Meanwhile, Ladies in Black is a feast of colour, dreams, tears and laughter and is briefly with us in Sydney to enjoy.