In a return season presented by Queensland Theatre, Ladies in Black is a charming musical full of flair and frocks, exploring the post-war era in Australia. Adapted by Carolyn Burns from Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel, The Women in Black, the story looks at this time and its issues from a lighter perspective, using quintessential Aussie humour rather than dwelling too long in dark drama.
Set in a Sydney department store with all the nostalgia, etiquette, and social inequities of the late 50s, it was a time when women were polite, subservient homemakers who worked in retail or admin, if they did at all, and a university education was considered laughable.
In a coming of age and era story, “busy busy bookworm” Lisa (Sarah Morrison) lands her first job during the summer sales in the city’s most prominent department store, F.G. Goodes, while she awaits her high school ‘leaving’ results and an uncertain future. With dreams of going to university, the bright but sheltered girl lives under the control of her unmovable father (Greg Stone) who thinks education for women is a waste of time, especially since marriage, babies, and home life is the inevitable step around the corner, (according to him and other fathers of that era).
A whole new world (pardon the Disney reference), opens up as Lisa learns the ropes of retail in the Cocktail Frocks Department. Here she meets single gal Fay (Ellen Simpson) who can’t seem to find the right bloke, and married woman Patty (Madeleine Jones) who is having troubles at home with husband Frank (Tamlyn Henderson) while trying to fall pregnant.
But it is bold and intimidatingly mysterious Magda (Natalie Gamsu) in Model Gowns who takes Lisa under her ‘continental’ wing and gives her the makeover and confidence she needs to step out of the shadows of the 50’s and into the liberation of the 60’s.
This Helpmann award winning production directed by Simon Phillips (Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical), is excellently cast and executed. Ellen Simpson is a hoot as Fay, full of life and charm but with her own secrets, while Madeleine Jones as Patty displays a heart-warming vulnerability under her poised exterior at work. Sarah Morrison was aptly reserved as Lisa the blossoming young lady and had a lovely light contemporary singing voice to suit the part. Natalie Gamsu as Magda was just divine. Superbly executed, Gamsu enveloped the audience with her charisma. Bobby Fox played a charmingly playful Hungarian called Rudi, although his accent through song sounded a little too continental at times.
Skyscraping mirrored pillars set the stage for a stunning department store with revolves seamlessly transitioning from one scene to the next by bringing in and out the periphery set pieces. The set and costumes designed by Gabriela Tylesova provided a kaleidoscope of colour in addition to the gorgeous high fashion on display in Magda’s couture department.
Under the musical direction of David Young, the live band upstage behind a scrim provided depth to an otherwise sparse backdrop. The original music by Tim Finn (Crowded House), was a mix of music theatre and contemporary music more akin to the composer’s folk/pop background. Although the score on the whole didn’t really fit in with the 50’s theme, it also didn’t feel out of place.
The highlight of the show would have to be the catchy little number called ‘Bastard Song’, complete with cleverly synchronised tea-cup choreography by Andrew Hallsworth. In addition to the standard introduction to the song and dance numbers where you can feel a musical number coming on, it was also nice to see some of the choreography just blend seamlessly into the scenes, which reminded me of some of the scenes in the recently premiered movie La La Land (but then again, the costuming also had a lot to do with the comparison).
Another witty number was ‘I Just Kissed a Continental’ which was a light-hearted poke at the xenophobia of the time. Overall, most of the lyrics were very cleverly written (although at times some of the rhymes felt a little forced).
Ladies in Black is an entertaining night at the theatre with fabulous frocks and frivolous fun keeping the heart-warming story afloat as it explores underlying issues of gender inequality in the 50s.
Ladies in Black will run at QPAC’s Playhouse theatre till February 19.