BWW REVIEW: Award Winning Australian Musical LADIES IN BLACK Puts 1950's Women and Australian Culture In the Spotlight With Class, Comedy and Captivating Music
Friday 6th January 2017, 8pm, Lyric Theatre, Sydney
Capturing the not too distant past of 1950's Sydney, the heart-warming coming of age story of a young, intelligent woman comes to life with fabulous songs and fantastic fashion in LADIES IN BLACK. Following its premiere in Brisbane in 2015 and a season in Melbourne in 2016, Tim Finn's (Music and Lyrics) Helpmann Award winning musical (Best New Australian Work 2016), based on Madeleine St John's novel The Women In Black, finally arrives in Sydney, the home of the story's fictional high end department store Goode's.
Under the direction of Simon Phillips, LADIES IN BLACK is a 'coming of age' story of a young, intelligent, "bookworm" embarking on a summer job between completing her Leaving Certificate and hopefully starting a Literature degree at Sydney University. With a rare focus on a women's' stories in a time when women were expected to get married and be housewives or at most become sales assistants, teachers or secretaries, Leslie's (or Lisa as she prefers to be called) (Sarah Morrison) and her new colleagues at Goode's (modelled Premium Australian department store David Jones) lives are changed over the course of the Christmas retail rush and January sales. In addition to society's view on women's roles in society, prejudices of the unknown and unfamiliar are also challenged at a grass roots, suburban level as Sydney is on the precipice of becoming the multicultural cosmopolitan capital it is now regarded as.
Drawing on the high ceilings and pillars that are synonymous with high end department stores around the world and in particular Sydney's David Jones, Designer Gabriela Tylesova has worked her magic to create a beautiful, seemingly simple, set that transforms from the inner city retail mecca to suburbia with a rotation of a turntable (or three) and the addition of a minimal collection of home furnishings, retail displays and ferry benches. Projections and David Walters Lighting Design help set the scene and separate the stage to allow multiple stories to play out at once. Tylesova has captured the fashion of the era from Mrs Miles' (Carita Farrer Spencer) simple home-made dresses to the coveted colourful full skirted, cinched waisted frocks that fill Goode's Cocktail Gown and Model Gowns departments and the sophisticated black suits and dresses worn by the Goodes sales assistants, proving their motto that "everyone looks better in black" as Phillips has refreshingly cast women of all ages and sizes.
Finns music is catchy, clever and intelligent whilst capturing 1950's Australia with phrases that have gone out of the lexicon but represent the era before crassness and swearing took over. He captures truths that the audience can relate to, from the title song Ladies In Black, to the much loved Bastard Song that was met with roars of laughter and gawffs of agreeance. The work is also refreshing in the central character's "love story" isn't focused on a man, but a dress, which Finn beautifully expresses in Lisette. Presented with broad Australian accents for the most part Phillips has ensured that the audience see this as a truly Australian story and Finn has mixed a blend of music styles, not becoming a slave to the era or conventions of traditional musicals, instead incorporating wonderfully fun elements including a teacup percussion element.
Sarah Morrison reprises the role of Lisa, the 17 year old somewhat sheltered school leaver with a fondness for books and an ambition to become a poet. Morrison is endearing and compelling as the wide eyed youngster wanting to please and dying to learn and discover. With the assistance of Tylesova's costuming design, Morrison captures Lisa's growth from meek and mild to confident young woman that despite wanting to break the mould of women only being destined to become mothers, sales assistants and secretaries, still has dreams and desires that the other women have, to fit in, and look fabulous.
As Lisa's new found friend and mentor, Magda, Natalie Gamsu is striking as the exotic Hungarian migrant and keeper of the exclusive Model Gowns department who takes the newcomer under her wing and opens Lisa's eyes to new experiences, people and foods. Gamsu ensures that in addition to a consistent accent, Magda's differences from the rest of the Goode's girls are clear in her carriage and formality which the others mistake for a severity that has them view her with an unnecessary caution.
Ellen Simpson and Madeleine Jones present the girls from Cocktail Gowns, Fay and Patty, as typical Australian young women. With a sophistication that was synonymous with sales assistants of premium products, Simpson and Jones represent the two types of women that filled the stereotype of the time, the single woman looking for a boyfriend with the hope of settling down, and the young wife still working whilst waiting to fall pregnant. Both express their character's cheerful façade that makes their colleagues and in particular Lisa, think they have the perfect life until the sad truth comes out in their side stories that shows the pressures put on young women by society. Simpson captures Fay's initial frivolity but as the weariness of the dating game, that is still familiar to current audiences, she grows to try new things, opening up to learn from Lisa.
As Lisa's father Mr Miles, Greg Stone, who also doubles the role of Magda's husband Stefan, presents the outdated views that men used to hold with a conviction and authority that sees both Lisa and Mrs Miles (Carita Farrer Spencer) initially submit to his authority. As Stefan, Stone captures the physicality of the adoring and expressive European but it his attempt at the accent is his downfall particularly in his vocals.
Magda and Stefan's friend, and Fay's eventual love interest Rudi, the European is presented with a passion and persistence by Bobby Fox. Rounding out the trio of intellectual Europeans that share Lisa's love of literature, Fox presents the Ladies Man with suaveness but also sincerity as he decides he wants to settle down as he falls for the newly adventurous Fay. Similar to Stone, Fox's performance is only marred by his variance in accent.
LADIES IN BLACK is a beautiful, hopeful and light story anchored by some powerful topics that sit below the surface and show how far society has come, or hasn't. A must for anyone wanting to see an Australian story, performed by Australians. For those with a love of style and fashion, Tylesova's beautiful design will delight. For people longing to see a woman's story told, where the women are the focus, not a support, and the key love story isn't with a guy, or a girl, LADIES IN BLACK ticks the boxes.
Brisbane - Playhouse, QPAC
28 January - 19 February 2017
Phone: 136 246 or queenslandtheatre.co.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
Photos: Lisa Tomasetti