Ladies in Black (Queensland Theatre Company)
QPAC, The Playhouse
November 14 – December 6
It’s nearing Christmas sometime in late 1950’s Sydney. Leslie Miles is the tops – top of multiple subjects in completion of her leaving certificate. The literature-loving bookworm is now looking for a new chapter in her young life so, having studied the staff etiquette guidelines, is ready to begin work as a lady in (sensible and chic) black in the cocktail dress section at the prestigious Goodes Department Store.
(Whatever you want you will get it at Goodes, audience members are told in the show’s opening number.) While Lisa (Sarah Morrison), as Leslie prefers to be known, appreciates it as a magical place, she doesn’t want to work there for keeps; the budding poet hopes to go to university, which creates conflict with her traditional parents (Greg Stone and Carita Farrer Spencer) who don’t believe women need higher education when a secretarial course could suffice.
Fortified by an opt-reprised musical anthem of the words of William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, Lisa embraces the new friendships and experiences that come with the employment, mostly courtesy of the co-workers who let her into their lives. Patty (Lucy Maunder) finds herself drifting away from husband Frank (Andrew Broadbent) after a decade of trying to fall pregnant. Fay (Naomi Price) is sick of enduring disastrous dates with sometimes married men so contemplates a relationship with the sweet Hungarian Rudi (Bobby Fox), friend of European refugee Magda (Christen O’Leary) who hosts the store’s salon for special customers in search of new fashion and extraordinary gowns.
Magda takes Lisa under her wing, introducing her to an exotic lifestyle of salami and scarves, leading to clichéd ugly-duckling-into-swan scene when the protagonist loses her bookish glasses and sophisticates her style, just in time for the end of Act One. This also allows for touch on the text’s feminist themes when Magda’s husband Stefan (Greg Stone) shares with Lisa with a copy of “Middlemarch”, with explanation that although Mary Ann Evans had to write under the pseudonym of George Elliot in order to be taken seriously, such things are no longer necessary.
O’Learly barely misses a beat as the vibrant and stylish Magda, a credit surely to dialect coach Melissa Agnew, even if her energetic Act Two monologue narration of New Year’s Eve party guest arrivals and interplay does drag a little. Newcomer Morrison is appropriately innocently wide-eyed as the bookish Lisa, showcasing a standout soaring soprano, and Price brings a wink and smile to Carol Burns’s often deliberately blunt Australian dialogue, culminating in the catchy Act Two number ‘I Just Kissed a Continental’. But the ultimate star of the show is Tim Finn’s lyrics and music and it i appropriate perhaps the band should receive the evening’s most rapturous applause.
Songs are plentiful, in full form or fragment (a set-list would have made for a welcomed program addition) and are filled with clever lyrics and catchy rhythms. Some of the best come from the secondary Patty storyline. After an argument, Patty’s mum and two sisters sing the memorable “The Bastard Song” and when the couple meet up again and sing of their feelings, the lyrics are full of everyday vernacular, Australian humour and lines like ‘Frank, you’re an idiot!’. Even when Frank sings of wanting to be a proper family man, there is a rich bluesy tone to his lavatory lament.
The music is performed by a live six piece band, led by Musical Director Isaac Hawyard. Appropriately positioned behind sheer curtains at the rear of the stage, they are ever-present, not just physically but through their contemporary sounds, ranging from banging bass to ballads of lighter touch such as Act One’s Irish-toned ‘Glorious Day’.
Gabriela Tylesova’s design is visually impressive without being at the expense of functionality. Lush drapery, glass and mirrored pillars evoke the glitz of a department store shop floor. And the use of revolving platforms not only allows for in-scene changes but seamless choreography, reminiscent of ‘The Girl on the Magazine Cover’ number from Irving Berlin’s 1948 movie musical “Easter Parade”. Because then there are also the costumes and display dresses … fabulous frocks that garner gasps of their own when they make appearance on stage.
As a story of fashion, friendship and 1950s Australia (“a moment in Australia’s adolescence” as described by Burns in the program’s Playwright’s Note), “Ladies in Black” is a triumph that capitalises on the wave of nostalgia which has led to so many recent musical revivals, yet does so though presentation of a new and fresh Australian story. Although the coming of age tale based on Madeleine St John’s novel “The Women in Black” is weighted by feminist discourses and themes surrounding national identity and xenophobia, it remains playful in its touches, which befits its musical genre.
The show is QTC’s first original musical in 16 years and well it might be said that it has been worth the wait for a homemade musical (with QPAC funding the first development, it has been a totally Brisbane show from the very start) of such calibre. Not only is its humble, heart-warning story brought to delightful life by an accomplished cast, but its creatives have given it an enduring appeal beyond just evocation of its era. For some singing, a bit of dancing and a dash of sentiment, make sure you book an appointment with the LBD ladies of Goodes.