Ladies in Black

Ladies in BlackLeft – Madeleine Jones, Ellen Simpson, Natalie Gamsu. Cover – Cast of Ladies In Black. Photos – Lisa Tomasetti

Although not as rare as hens’ teeth, new Australian musicals are generally hard to come by. They lack the support to easily get staged in a theatre climate where the majority of musicals are propped up by the twin pillars of either being established “classics”, or having recently become a hit in either the West End or on Broadway, thus assuaging nervous investors and funding bodies’ concerns over ticket sales. In an industry where the basis for new musicals is increasingly that of adapting popular films to the stage (even an Australian film like the hit stage version of Priscilla), being “risk-adverse” now often seems par for the course. So choosing to do a musical which is not only new, but based on a relatively obscure book, and set in something as seemingly mundane as a department store may seem like a trifecta of risky propositions.

Fortunately, Ladies in Black is not only bolstered by music and lyrics by Tim Finn, but in some respects its unusual subject matter may very well be its greatest strength, to make it stand out from the crowd. Much as the success of period-piece televisions shows such as Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and The Doctor Blake Mysteries indicates a hearty mainstream audience for period-piece Australiana. Hopefully this musical will continue to have legs on a similar basis. Adapted from a novel set in 1959 Sydney, it concerns an ensemble of women who work in F.G. Goode's, a fictionalised department store in the city, and details the changing face of womanhood on the cusp of the nation’s cultural shifts from deep postwar conservatism to the social revolutions just over the horizon of the coming decade.

Chief among them is Lesley -- although she has just decided that she prefers to go by the more feminine Lisa – a very bright prototypical bookworm who has taken a temp job at Goode’s while awaiting the results of her Leaving Certificate, the era’s equivalent of the HSC. Lisa dreams of going to (gasp!) Sydney University, and yearns to become a (heavens!) poet, aspirations which befuddle her housewife mother and enrage her blue-collar father, who feel that she has been more than indulged enough already by allowing her to stay on in school past the Intermediate Exams two years earlier. After all, what’s the point of all that extra education if you’re just going to get married and settle down anyway? You don’t want to get caught up with all those coffee-shop posers and suspiciously left-wing radicals at university, her father insists, what’s wrong with life just the way it’s always been…?

Although already reaching for new horizons through her books and own writings, Lisa’s sheltered Chatswood existence is opened wider by working at Goode's, coming into contact with older girls, working women, and the new aesthetic adventure of working in fashion. This is a doorway to new experiences for her, especially once taken under the wing of the store’s high-end couture expert Magda, a haughty, thickly accented “crazy continental”. Meeting her Hungarian husband and bohemian friends, Lisa is for the first time surrounded by people who share her passion for literature, and introduce her to the heady delights of exotic foods like (shock!) salami and the pleasures of dancing and dressing up like a sophisticated adult. While her parents might clutch at their pearls over her associating with “reffos” from (stone the crows!) Mosman, Lisa is having the time of her life.

There are several other secondary characters in this ensemble of working women at the department store, but the other major storylines concern two particular women. Faye is glamorous but unlucky in love, and spooked by staring down the barrel of 30. Jilted once already, she is tired of the uncouth and entitled yobbos and larrikins that her rough best friend keeps hooking her up with, and while at first Lisa seems like the ingénue by comparison, it is through their interaction that Faye widens her horizons and starts to realise that unsophisticated Aussies aren’t the be-all and end-all of her romantic options.

Finally we have Patty, a still relatively young woman married for ten years but childless, and on the verge of a relationship breakdown with her uncommunicative and sexually repressed husband. His doubts about his manhood lead to her own insecurities about her femininity and self-worth in turn, and result in easily the best song of the musical, in which her mother and sisters join in a hearty and careworn chorus of mistreated housewives bemoaning the shortcomings of their husbands – and all men by extension – for being “a standard issue bastard”.

If all of this sounds a bit parochial and mundane, well… it is. But that is also the point. This may be a narrative with no wildly coincidental story contrivances nor complex plot devices that need to be dramatically resolved in a nail-biting climax, rather, it is a slice of life at a certain time and place in our collective history, and that is worthy of telling. Moreover these are women’s stories, told (and moreover sung!) in the Aussie vernacular, that is unashamed of our own idiom and accent, and of telling what life was like for working women at different ages from school-leaving to near retirement, and that it was not always easy to find respect and happiness even in a so-called golden era.

To some extent, one’s enjoyment of this show may be heavily predicated on your foreknowledge of, or at least interest in, the lives of women from this era. Having grown up listening to my Baby Boomer mother recounting her own struggles with suburban rebellion and seeking higher education against the wishes of uncomprehending parents, and then in turn heard tales of my Nan from the Greatest Generation who worked for decades in the womenswear section of a department store, this musical resonated for me personally to an immense degree.

Even if you don’t have such a direct connection to the material, it is a delightful and even moving show provided you are in the correct headspace to engage with the subject matter. It is not without its flaws, though – for example Tim Finn’s music and lyrics while fun and entertaining are mostly not terribly memorable, especially compared to his pop music, and many aspects of the orchestration seem anachronistic for a late ‘50s period piece. It may have been more fitting, not to mention a bit of retro fun, if Finn had looked instead to the stylistic tones of musicals and radio hits from the era. The narrative also has a few curious structural issues, such as Lisa’s potential love interest being mentioned several times yet never portrayed onstage. Her primary infatuation is instead reserved for an expensive dress she hopes to buy from Magda’s department if it remains discounted and unsold at the end of the January sales. Not to be too proscriptive about sticking to established tropes, but it seemed like a curiously superficial object of obsession for a character elsewhere defined by her studious intellect and expanding horizons.

The staging by Simon Phillips makes good use of a sparse set employing multiple revolves in the stage to shuffle on and off various scene-changing items of furniture, although some of the doubling choices among the cast at times lead to inadequate differentiation between the minor roles. Also, the dialect work for the “reffo” characters is variable in quality, with Bobby Fox’s “Hungarian” accent being howlingly bad, well beneath the acceptable standard for professional stagecraft. It’s one thing to have a panto-foreigner accent if your character is framed as a generic “European” for comedic effect, but if you’re going to overtly state someone’s specific national background and make them a major character’s romantic foil, this is embarrassingly sub-par, and unfortunate, given Fox’s otherwise charming performance.

The cast is a strong ensemble, headed by Sarah Morrison as Lisa, who captures both the wide-eyed yearning and blossoming womanhood of the lead role. Ellen Simpson is very good as the striking Faye, while Natalie Gamsu portrays the sagely hedonistic Magda with gusto. An honourable mention also goes to stage stalwart Greg Stone as both Lisa’s father and Magda’s husband, widely disparate roles he manages to distinguish clearly despite a lack of significant changes to his appearance.

Ladies in Black may not be the “Great Australian Musical” we have been waiting for, but not everything needs to be the epic, operatic “Story of Us”. But it is one our stories, and although a quieter one about the experiences of straight white women in the late 1950s, one that deserves to be told. I only wish I could have shared it with the women in my family who lived these lives and had previously imparted their own very similar experiences to me, which now deeply enriched my appreciation of this engrossing new work.

A Queensland Theatre Company production
Ladies in Black
book Carolyn Burns | music and lyrics Tim Finn | based on the novel by Madeleine St John

Director Simon Phillips

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre
Dates: 3 – 22 January 2017
Bookings: 1300 795 267 |
Venue: Playhouse, QPAC
Dates: 28 January – 19 February 2017
Bookings: 136 246 |
Venue: Regent Theatre
Dates: 25 February – 18 March 2017
Bookings: 1300 111 011
Venue: Canberra Theatre Centre
Dates: 27 March – 2 April 2017
Bookings: (02) 6275 2700 |

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