The Women In Black (Ladies In Black) – Part Two (The Review)
Fifty-four years ago, a nine-year-old Tim Finn, who hails from Te Awamutu, also known as the Rose Town of New Zealand, was taken to the theatre by his mum to see My Fair Lady, and the seed was sown to write a musical one day in the future. This particular dream took some time to come to fruition because during the intervening years, Tim was busy making himself into a pop music icon with his tenure in Split Enz, Crowded House, The Finn Brothers, as well as his stellar solo career.
And perhaps as a homage to his first musical theatre experience, Tim chose a Pygmalion tale of sorts for his debut musical, Ladies In Black (based on Madeleine St John’s novel The Women In Black). The central character is a young, unworldly, shy and bookish girl, Lesley Miles, who has just completed her school ‘leaving’ exams, and is employed to work as a Christmas casual in the cocktail frock department of Sydney’s most prestigious department store, F.G. Goode’s.
Lesley’s first bold step into the adult world is renaming herself Lisa on the application form, and as such, her transformation from naïve young girl to a woman who knows what she wants begins.
The transition from page to stage requires the collaboration of many creative luminaries, and Tim co-opted his friends Simon Phillips (director) and Carolyn Burns (playwright) to join him in this venture. And thanks to the tireless efforts of many talented people, the world premiere season of Ladies in Black, created by the Queensland Theatre Company (QTC) in association with the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) opened on 14 November 2015, and will run until 6 December at the Playhouse, QPAC.
When the novel The Women In Black was re-issued in Australia, a review in the Sydney Morning Herald noted ‘the theatrical influence’ in the novel saying: “the whole novel could have been a performance on a revolving stage with basic set changes,” and this concept is beautifully envisaged by QTC’s creative team, including the multiple Helpmann Award-winning set and costume designer, Gabriela Tylesova, and lighting designer, David Walters.
Set in Sydney in the late 1950s, at a time when culture in Australia was in its adolescence, Ladies In Black is part love letter and part lament for that moment in time for the middle-classes. It was a time when the shops closed at lunchtime on Saturdays, men were the breadwinners and expected their meat (rump steak in Frank’s case) and three veg on the table every night.
It was the norm for young ladies to work for a relatively short period of time before settling down and having a family. But the times, they are ‘a changing’ even at F.G. Goode’s – Patty Williams (Lucy Maunder) is 31, married to Frank (Andrew Broadbent) for ten years without having produced any children. Their house in Randwick is fully furnished (within an inch of its life in fact), but she continues to work and puts most of her wages in an account with the Bank of New South Wales. Fay Baines (Naomi Price), her colleague in cocktail frocks, is perilously close to 30 with not a proposal in sight, and unfortunately burdened with a ‘past’ which includes liaisons with married men.
The enigmatic Miss Jacobs (Deidre Rubenstein) lost her fiancé in the war and her private life outside of her employment at F.G. Goode’s remains a mystery to all. Even her first name is unknown to all but those who work in payroll (and they are not telling). Sophisticated, worldly, charming and childless, the magnificent Magda (Christen O’Leary), guardian of the rose-pink cave of Model Gowns and purveyor of grand style, does not fit neatly into any stereotypical box but this is because she is a ‘crazy Continental’ – a New Australian – who makes her own rules. And Magda can see the potential in Lisa (Sarah Morrison) and takes her under her tutelage.
The mood of white middle-class Australia in the 1950s is perfectly captured in the songs, music and choreography – the colour-coordinated and toe-tapping I Got It At Goode’s and the housewife’s lament, He’s A Bastard, are show-stoppers.
There are overt references to salami, rye bread, cream cheese, and other foreign foods in the dialogue of the play to highlight the differences between the Australians and Continentals (Reffos), but the musical influences are more subtle with instruments such as the piano accordion being used in the songs – A Nice Australian Girl, I Just Kissed A Continental and Summer Afternoon. Musical director, Isaac Hayward, and his very capable team of musicians, do this seamlessly.
The Continental men are a delight. Rudi, the former bureaucrat from Budapest, is played with aplomb by Bobby Fox, and Greg Stone takes on the challenge of the dual roles of Stefan, Magda’s Nietzsche/Shakespeare/Tolstoy/Dickens reading husband, and Mr Miles, Lisa’s father, who has a more linear worldview.
At heart, the Ladies In Black is a love story, a tale of reinvention and personal growth. There is romance in the traditional sense but Lisa also falls in love with herself (and who she might become) ably aided by the perfect frock – Lisette – the quintessential evening frock for a young girl: a froth of red pin-spotted white organza with a low neck, tight bodice, a few deep ruffles over the shoulder, artful red silk piping edging these ruffles and the three tiers of the gathered skirts whose deepest tier would have cleared the floor by some eight inches, to leave a good view of a slender leg, a delicate ankle. The effect was of tiny spots set off by narrow stripes, the gaiety of crimson set off by the candour of white; the silky fabric very faintly shimmered.
She was experiencing for the first time that particular species of love-at-first sight which usually comes to a woman much earlier in her life, but which sooner or later comes to us all: the sudden recognition that a particular frock is not merely pretty, would not merely suit one, but answers beyond these necessary attributes to one’s deepest notions of oneself. It was her frock: it had been made, however unwittingly, for her.
So why not treat yourself and step through the doors of F.G. Goode’s department store and into a marvellous musical whirl of glitz and glamour. Click here for more information, or if you would like to make a booking.
Photo credits: Courtesy kathROSE and associates