The Queensland Theatre Company (QTC) continues to deliver on its promise of a diverse 2015 program by dipping its toe into the traditional musical arena, but don’t let appearances fool you. With this fabulously dark adaptation (by Carolyn Burns) of Madeleine St John’s novel, The Women in Black, QTC once again turns expectations on their head, revealing a multi-layered production with a simmering undercurrent of wit and whimsy.
The re-titled Ladies in Black introduces us to wide-eyed, late-nineteen fifties teen Lisa (Sarah Morrison) who is negotiating coming of age in era that offers her a career as a home-maker and little else. As she waits for her depressingly-titled ‘school leaving’ results she has time to experience something of life while she and her mother try to convince her father to let her go to university.
Lisa secures herself a short-term summer job at one of Sydney’s high-end department stores and very quickly falls under the spell of the ladies that work there. There’s poor Patty (Lucy Maunder) struggling to keep a husband (Andrew Broadbent) who won’t face-up to the truth behind their fertility issues and Fay (played by the show-stealing Naomi Price) who is struggling to find a husband at all, but Lisa finds herself captivated by the mysterious Magda (Christen O’Leary), an exotic European woman who runs the cocktail fashion department and takes the budding writer under her wing.
Through Magda and her charming husband Stefan (Greg Stone), Lisa is introduced to an entirely different world in post-war Sydney – and she is also introduced to Rudi, also from Hungry, sparking one of the most entertaining musical numbers to date: “She Just Kissed a Continental.” With light airy tunes and quick-witted rhymes, the number firmly ‘takes the mickey’ out of that glossy, xenophobic, misogynistic heyday of ignorant Australian society – and it is so much fun!
Tim Finn was the unlikely instigator for this surprising QTC journey and has achieved big-show tunes that are refreshingly modern and un-musical (in a genre context) and yet somehow time and culture appropriate. With a live band playing the score and humorous lyrics, it keeps the tone light-hearted but doesn’t detract from the exploration of less-than-funny subject matter, some of those traits that are still lurking in society today.
Using the simple sleek styles of early century architecture with a design by Gabriela Tylesova, the story takes place within the grand pillars of the department store – it’s simple yet breathtaking. Utilising a revolve, she creates alternate spaces and graceful movement that belies the bustling atmosphere of the fashion palaces of old and the awakening aspirations of youth. Magda’s evening dresses are a show of their own, draped from vintage dressmaker mannequins, and the colourful and the hyper-Pleasantville fashion in general provides eye candy for any era loving audience member.
With O’Leary the only recognisable QTC regular, Ladies in Black is largely a QTC-debut cast with the likes of Kate Cole in duel roles of Miss Cartwrite & Joy, the wonderfully diverse Carita Farrer Spencer (Women In Voice, Larry Paradiseo and the Fabulous Dame Farrer) appearing as Mrs Miles, Bobby Fox (Jersey Boys) as Hungarian wooer Rudi, Deidre Rubinstein as Miss Jacobs & Mrs Crown and of course Sarah Morrison as our young heroine Lisa.
Ladies in Black in its world premier in Brisbane had a packed-house on it’s feet by the time the curtains fell, and with it soon moving on to debut in Melbourne in January 2016, there is no doubt that this new musical born of the stellar partnership between Simon Phillips and Tim Finn will become a well-loved modern classic of the stage. There is still time to see it in Brisbane before it migrates south.