"Ladies In Black is feel-good while still managing to communicate something urgent and moving about acceptance, tolerance and equality."
I've never been a fan of the phrase "feel-good show." It often seems like a euphemism for campy, inconsequential schtick that has nothing to say of any relevance. Yet, Ladies In Black is undoubtedly feel-good while still managing to communicate something astute and moving about acceptance, tolerance and equality. Madeleine St John's touching comedy of manners set in a 1950s Sydney department store might seem a bit sappy to some 21st century cynics, but as Tim Finn and Carolyn Burns' musical theatre adaptation reveals, there's a lot we can learn from the Australia of yesteryear.
This Queensland Theatre production is a tale of gals, gowns and growing up, following bright young school-leaver Lisa as she temporarily joins the ranks of the titular ladies in black, working in Goodes department store over the Christmas rush.
As well as being a coming of age story, it also explores a coming of the age, during a pivotal chapter in Australia's history when the arrival of post-war European "reffos" began to transform our society into the multicultural melting pot it is today.
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Teetering on the brink of this cosmopolitan metamorphosis, Lisa is the product of a society in flux. Her intelligence and creativity make her thirst for new experiences and ideas and yet her salt of the earth upbringing and no-frills, working class parents have kept her cloistered in the suburbs. Just like Australia, she stands at a crossroads, torn between going to University and thus embracing the world and all its wonders, or conforming to the wishes of her father's generation, who in their stubborn attempts to cling to a simpler time, when women knew their place and stayed at home, are smothering the ambitions of promising girls like Lisa.
Up until now, her only female role model has been her mother - the archetypal suburban housewife - but thanks to her summer temp job, her eyes are opened to the variety of different lives that could await her. At Goodes, she discovers a microcosm of the world outside her drab, colourless home-life; a world of continental joie de vivre and aspirational fashion.
Carolyn Burns' book is superbly observed, full of true-blue ockerisms and classic Aussie banter. Character development is somewhat sparse, perhaps because each role is an effigy of a mid-20th century Australian stereotype, but nonetheless, there's still a great deal of warm, affable charm to keep an audience invested.
Tim Finn's lyrics also err on the hokey side, and yet they are perfectly judged for the direct, down-to-earth, BS-free spirit of this particular milieu; what Finn's cheeky couplets and mawkish rhymes might lack in profundity, they certainly make up for in charisma. Sure, they occasionally peak to sickly-sweet levels of sentimentality, but the clarity of the narrative intention is never muddied, remaining consistently accessible and engaging. Finn proves himself to be a musical chameleon with the score for his debut musical, which employs an eclectic range of styles, from soft rock to rhythm and blues, classic patter songs, flamenco, polka and even some funk. Despite this variety, the music retains a baseline of Finn-brand consistency that prevents the whole becoming a directionless hodgepodge. There are more than a few earworms to be found here and strong, catchy themes are expertly reprised and repackaged to guide us through the emotional vectors of different characters.
Veteran director Simon Phillips is a master manipulator with his unindulgent marshalling of the stage. Taking full advantage of designer Gabriela Tylesova's elegant revolving set, Philips keeps the pace swift and transitions seamless while David Walters' lighting carefully leads the eye, switching from wide-shot to focused close-up in a single cue.
Ladies In Black arrives in Sydney with two seasons, in Queensland and Melbourne respectively, already under its belt. Save for a couple of alterations, this production's cast should be well bedded-in, but there still seemed to be some first-night jitters, with a few off-kilter vocal performances taking the shine off an otherwise well-presented opening. More problematic is the choice of venue. At its previous runs, this show played to much smaller houses, and now installed on the larger stage at Sydney's Lyric Theatre, it sometimes appeared (and sounded) a little threadbare. It seems in an attempt to broaden this show's scale while preserving its original intimacy, one has cancelled out the other.
That foible aside, there's an undeniable chemistry between this ensemble. Sarah Morrison's Lisa is luminous, her light, honeyed tone ideally suited for our wide-eyed heroine. Ellen Simpson as the unlucky-in-love Fay brings power and vulnerability to her account, along with a subtle comedic touch. Madeleine Jones injects a sobering note of pathos into this often jocular story as Patty, a woman trapped in a passionless marriage, full of secret yearning. Natalie Gamsu occasionally sounded over-taxed in her singing, whereas her acting as the formidable, sophisticated Hungarian fashionista Magda was entirely pitch perfect.
Of the gents, Bobby Fox stands out as the uber-charming, romantically headstrong Rudi, his sudden outbursts of Gene Kelly-esque footwork an excellent finishing touch on this characterisation. Also impressive is Greg Stone, who makes the quantum leap between the sensitive, dotting Stefan and the bullish, close-minded Mr Miles with effortless ease.
Following the opening night performance of this debut Sydney season, I happened to chat to a group of women for whom this story struck a chord (our conversation quite possibly earned this review an additional star). They too had been in Lisa's position at this moment in Australia's past and for them, the poignancy of this show, celebrating the same burgeoning female empowerment they too had unknowingly trailblazed for later generations of Australian women, was palpable. This is surely Ladies In Black's most laudable quality: not only is this a truly Australian story, it is also one that pulses with experiences still within living memory. Furthermore, its themes about welcoming the unknown and aspiring to be more feel exceptionally relevant in a world where anti-immigration sentiment is tightening its grip on mainstream politics. In these times of One Nation and "post-truth" rhetoric, a feel-good show with smart, sincere integrity is a relief.
Queensland Theatre presents Ladies In Black, until 22 Jan at Sydney Lyric Theatre. Part of Sydney Festival.