Thursday, March 30, 2017


Book by Carolyn Burns, based on a novel by Madeline St. John
Music and Lyrics by Tim Finn. Directed by Simon Phillips,
Choreographed by Andrew Hallsworth. Designed by Gabriela Tylesova
Musical Director David Young.
Presented by Queensland Theatre and the Canberra Theatre Centre

Canberra Theatre until 2nd April 2017

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

The Ladies

“Ladies in Black” is a gentle, nostalgic little musical about a young girl, Lisa (Sarah Morrison), who takes a temporary job in Goodes department store; while she waits for the results of her leaving certificate examination, which she hopes will be good enough to allow her to study at University.

Set in Sydney in the 1950’s, our heroine lives at home with loving, protective parents. Her father discourages her University ambitions, encouraging her instead to set her sights on getting married and bringing up a family.

 Goode’s department store looks a lot like David Jones, and employs sales assistants who actually offer service to its customers, among them Fay (Ellen Simpson) and Patty (Madeleine Jones), who befriend Lisa. She also meets Magda (Natalie Gamsu), a glamorous Hungarian migrant who runs the Model Gowns department where Lisa discovers a gorgeous dress which she hopes to be able to afford, at a discounted price, if it is not sold in the January sales.
Magda takes a liking to Lisa and invites her to her Mosman home, where Lisa meets Magda’s Hungarian husband, Stefan (Greg Stone) and is introduced to their Bohemian lifestyle and friends, who include the charming refugee, Rudi (Bobby Fox). Gradually, she discovers a whole different world to the one that she has been brought up in.

Along the way Lisa learns that Patty’s marriage is faltering because of her apparent inability to conceive; that Fay is worrying because she is approaching her 30th birthday and is weary of the procession of dull men who pass through her life, and that everyone is intrigued by their kindly work colleague, Miss Jacobs (Trisha Noble) who won’t reveal her first name.

Sara Morrison as Lisa 

Impressive performances abound with Sarah Morrison capturing exactly the right tone as the blossoming young schoolgirl, Lisa.  Natalie Gamsu is terrific as the elegantly hedonistic, Magda, as is Greg Stone in the dual roles of Magda’s husband, Stefan, and Lisa’s gruff father, Mr. Miles. Also playing two contrasting roles, Tricia Noble charms as the kindly Miss Jacobs, and provides some genuine belly laughs as the feisty Mrs Crown, and although Bobby Fox’s Hungarian accent is questionable, his singing and dancing are sheer delight.

Cate Cole, Trisha Noble and Kathryn McIntyre

Simon Phillip’s direction is slick and inventive, drawing on some witty, unobtrusive choreography by Andrew Hallsworth, and utilising to the full, Gabriela Tylesova’s stylish setting with its three revolving stages which allows furniture and actors to glide gracefully into place for the many changes of locale, and propel the storyline clearly and effectively.  Tylesova’s lovely costumes also successfully capture the emerging elegance of the period.

Tim Finn has provided some catchy songs, perhaps a few too many, but among them “The Bastard Song” is laugh-out-loud funny, “Sales talk” deliciously complex and “A Nice Australian Girl” quite charming. 

Though nothing of any real consequence happens in the storyline in which the inevitable happy endings can be seen a mile-off, the creatives and cast of “Ladies in Black” have succeeded in creating  a charming slice-of-life musical which, without becoming cloying, taps into a nostalgia for a period still lurking in the memories of many in the audience, gently visiting themes of feminism, domestic violence and multi-culturalism along the way.

Canberra is one of only four cities to have had the opportunity to have seen this Helpmann Award-winning Australian musical. It finishes its current tour in Canberra on Sunday. Don’t miss the opportunity. You’ll kick yourself if you do.  

                                             Photos by David James McCarthy

This review originally published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 29th March 2017 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Ladies in Black - Canberra Theatre Centre

Review by John Lombard

The Ladies in Black is a Cinderella story, but one where the step-mother is kindly and the romantic interest isn't a prince, but a dress.

This new Australian musical with music and lyrics by Tim Finn and a book by Carolyn Burns adapts the cult novel "Women in Black" by Madeline St. John, which explores the lives of the "ladies in black" who work on the shop floor at Department Store F.B. Goodes.

True to the tone of the book, this is a optimistic and light-hearted musical, with conflict minimal and gracefully dealt with.  In one sequence, main character Lisa (Sarah Morrison) is invited to a party by exotic new friends.  She goes, has a good time, and comes home - on time, to the satisfaction of her parents.

As a stage play, this would be unbearably dull, but fortunately the action is supported by excellent, inspired music by Tim Finn.  The music is light and ethereal, setting a fairyland tone, but varied by more stirring moments and witty refrains such as the playful pattern of notes that matches a series of kisses.  Where the story threatens to stall, Finn provides the appropriate tonal support, for example the ominous chords that accompany Lisa's first visit to the intimidating Model Gowns department.

Much like Jane Austen, St. John deals with social themes, but avoids outright conflict in favour of a comedy of manners.  Director Simon Phillips describes how the book "demolishes xenophobia through celebration rather than counter-terrorism".  Hungarian immigrant Magda (Natalie Gamsu) becomes a key figure in Lisa's education, awakening her to sensual possibilities, and in a gentle satirical poke at Australian culture in the 1950s her husband is the first person to ever talk to Lisa about literature.  Lisa's father (played by Greg Stone) is hostile to the idea of educating women, but his love for his daughter proves stronger.  Consistently, wherever the play flirts with showing conflict, the characters pull back and find an amicable solution.  Carolyn Burns deserves a lot of kudos for an adaption that is true to this kindliness to the characters but still finds enough humour to keep the play going.

The cast thoroughly enjoy the setting, and enrich the show by drawing out the personality of each character in this ensemble cast.  Sarah Morrison is an appropriate ingĂ©nue, smoothing out a uniform that is slightly too big for her.  She contrasts excellently with co-workers Fay (Ellen Simpson) and Patty (Madeline Jones), less bookish but more aware of the world.  While Lisa's growth is minimal, the experiences of the other women who work there show potential paths open to her.  Natalie Gamsu is delightful as mentor Madga and Bobby Fox is particularly impressive for his suite of very different male roles.

The Ladies in Black is an affectionate, inspired adaptation of Madeline St. John's work, that is so true to the book that it preserves the dramatic problems: a bildungsroman where little is learnt and everything works out because people are fundamentally good-natured and change is easy and painless.  However it works because the side-stories about the women who work at Goodes create a whole greater than the sum of the parts, and because Tim Finn's work is energetic and well-realised.

The Ladies in Black is soothing and fresh, a country stroll of a musical sustained both by a hard but hidden core of wit and intelligence, and the passion of both cast and creators.

On at the Canberra Theatre Centre until 2 April.


Book by Carolyn Burns
Music and Lyrics by Tim Finn
Directed by Simon Phillips
A Queensland Theatre Production
Canberra Theatre to 2 April

Review by Len Power 28 March 2017

No-one believes you if you say a show is perfect, but this new Australian musical, ‘Ladies In Black’ comes pretty close!

Based on ‘The Women in Black’, an Australian novel by Madeleine St. John, this Queensland Theatre production tells a Cinderella story about a teenage girl who gets a temporary Christmas job at a Sydney department store in the 1950s.  Her interaction with the other employees and her own parents gives us a fascinating glimpse into life in 1950s Australia when long accepted traditions and values were starting to be tested and migrants from Europe seemed strange and a bit crazy.

Top director, Simon Phillips, who has amongst his credits ‘Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert’, ‘Love Never Dies’ and ‘Dream Lover – The Bobby Darin Musical’, has given the show a lavish production that flows nicely from one scene to the next.  Set designer, Gabriela Tylesova, has designed a beautiful set that used three revolves and a forest of tall columns which gives the impression of a large department store interior.  Her costume designs for the cast are superb.  The lighting design by David Walters not only adds a great atmosphere to the set but at times comments on the action with subtle changes.

Carolyn Burns’ script has brilliantly written and very real 1950s characters and situations.  Although the show is set in the 1950s, Tim Finn’s music is modern and appealing.  It’s his lyrics that add the era’s flavour – ‘Bastard Song’ and ‘I Kissed A Continental’ are a good example.  There are also thoughtful ballads and rousing group numbers.  It’s a terrific musical score.

The large ensemble cast give excellent performances.  Sarah Morrison as the teenager, Lisa, wins the hearts of the audience very quickly with her accurate portrayal of a plain 1950s teenager who blossoms into a beautiful young woman over the course of the show.  Natalie Gamsu is delightful as Magda, a stylish designer from Hungary and Tamlyn Henderson as Frank nicely captures the doubts and fears of a troubled man of the era.  Bobby Fox is great fun but nevertheless very real as Rudi, another Hungarian migrant.  Every cast member gets their moment to shine in this show.

The choreography by Andrew Hallsworth is dynamic and suits the characters and the times and David Young’s musical direction of the onstage band is colourful and tight with a good sound balance between the band and the singers. 

If you don’t have tickets for ‘Ladies in Black’ yet, drop everything and book straight away!  This is a show not to be missed.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Artcetera’ program (9am Saturdays) and ‘Dress Circle’ (3.30pm Mondays).


Ladies in Black. 

Adapted from Madeleine St. John's novel, Women in Black, by Carolyn Burns. Directed by Simon Phillips. Music and Lyrics by Tim Finn. Designed by Gabriela Tylesova. Lighting by David Walters. Orchestration and Musical Supervisor . Guy Simpson. Choreography. Andrew Hallsworth. Musical Director. David Young. Sound Designer. Michael Waters. Queensland Theatre . Canberra Theatre. Canberra Theatre Centre. March 28 – April 1 2017

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

It all began with a chance reading by singer/songwriter Tim Finn of Madeleine St. John’s  Women in Black, a story about the lives of women  working in the Fashion Department of a major retail store. The result is a delightful, effervescent and genuinely Australian musical, adapted by Carolyn Burns, composed by Tim Finn and directed by music theatre Maestro, Simon Phillips. For those of us who are old enough to remember St John’s world of late Fifties Australia Ladies in Black rings a resounding peal of feel good nostalgia. What emerges is a haute couture of a musical, stylish, endearing and like a Chanel, Dior or St. Laurent fashioned with loving care and an eye for class and perfection.
It would be unfair to classify this glimpse into our past as only pertinent to those who may remember. St John has threaded a yarn of themes that resonate still with a contemporary audience. Lisa (Sarah Morrison) has a part time job at Goodes as she awaits the results of her Leaving  examination and a dream to study literature at University in spite of the conventional sexist attitudes of her father (Greg Stone.) Magda (Natalie Gamsu) is the independent migrant, married to successful Stefan (Greg Stone) and friends with Hungarian refugee Rudi (Bobby Fox) It is an age of migration and the creation of the multicultural society that weaves the fabric of today’s society. Fay (Ellen Simpson) celebrates her relationship with Rudi in I just kissed a Continental ).  Patty (Madeleine Jones) and husband Frank (Tamlyn Henderson) confront the tensions that exist when a couple is unable to have children. While the ladies celebrate the Christmas season the older Miss Jacobs (Trisha Noble) sits alone in her home. There won’t be a dry eye in the house.

The Sydney of 1959 reveals a society defined by its conformity. Ladies in Black is no whitewash.  Frank’s A Proper Family Man reveals the reality of social expectation. The ladies’ Bastard proclaims the divide between the sexes and Tomorrow Becomes Today  is an anthem to the new age that is dawning and the dreams carried on the hopes of a new generation. And in that hope is the capacity for change. It is the reality that Lisa’s father must accept and Frank is compelled to confront.
Queensland Theatre has staged a lavish portrait of a past that points to the future in Carolyn Burns’s appealing adaptation of St Johns’s novel. There is an appealing authenticity, complemented by Finn’s faithfully arranged lyrics. Finn’s numbers conjure the melodic tunes of a past era, easy to listen to, catchy and hummable. Finn is the actor’s composer and the cast rise to the character and spirit of his songs. It is also pleasing to see the orchestra under musical supervisor Guy Simpson behind a scrim at the rear of the stage. Memories of the pianist, who always played the Grand in David Jones fleetingly returns as I view the musicians upon the stage.
Director Phillips has a colourful flair for the lavish. It is imagined in David Winters’ lighting and Gabriela Tylesova’s magnificent costuming and prop frocks. The production is a kaleidoscope  of delicious fashion under the elegant columns, the palms and Phillip’s energetic staging of such numbers as Pandemonium, a glimpse of Sales Day mayhem. Phillips is assisted by Andrew Hallsworth’s stylish choreography and David Young’s exuberant musical direction.

Queensland Theatre’s production of Ladies in Black provides an easy to listen to, entertaining to watch recollection of warm-hearted memories for many, but it will also offer an appealing  Aussie glimpse into an era that launched a new age whose benefits are being reaped by today’s generation that grew out of yesterday’s tomorrow. An excellent cast, supported by an outstanding creative team create an uplifting insight into a past that forged the way to our present with all that we may have lost and much of what we have gained. You will laugh. You will have a tear in your eye, and you will wear a pride for a musical that speaks in our voice to the Australians of our time.

Monday, March 27, 2017

CARMEN - Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Opera in four acts by Georges Bizet. Conductor: Brian Castles-Onion.
Stage Director: Gale Edwards. Revival Director: Andy Morton.
Set Designer: Brian Thompson. Costume Designer: Julie Lynch.
Lighting Designer: John Rayment. Choreographer: Kelley Abbey.
Sound Designer: Tony David Cray.
Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point until 23rd April 2017.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Despite some unfortunate publicity at the beginning of the week which questioned the integrity of this revival, and unco-operative weather which resulted in this open-air production receiving only one full onstage run-through before the opening night performance, all was “right on the night”, and the first-night audience was rewarded with a  thrilling performance that was a triumph for all concerned. 
“Carmen” is the first of the Handa Operas on Sydney Harbour to be revived, and this meticulously prepared revival does full justice to a remarkable production. 

Conceived as  spectacle on a grand scale, Gale Edwards brilliant concept and staging takes advantage of every opportunity provided by the magical location and Bizet’s thrilling score to inject movement, drama and excitement into the proceedings, without compromising any of the intimacy of the central drama between the headstrong gypsy, Carmen, and her smitten soldier, Don Jose.

Jose Maria Lo Monaco as Carmen
Andeka Gorrotxategi as Don Jose
In this she is blessed with a marvellous Carmen in stunning mezzo soprano, Jose Maria Lo Monaco, whose lustrous voice and exotic  passionate presence, captured the attention of the audience, as well as the handsome Don Jose, (Andeka Gorrotxategi) from the moment she set foot on the stage.  Even in the scenes when these two are alone on Brian Thompson’s vast setting, they manage to remain the centre of attention, thanks in part to the remarkable lighting design by John Rayment, which keeps them firmly in focus, even when the stage is flooded with blues and reds, and a swirling mass of singers and dancers.

Jane Ede and Margaret Trubiano shine as Carmen’s friends, Frasquita and Mercedes, as do Nicholas Jones and Christopher Hillier as their smuggler friends, Remendado and Dancairo. Adrian Tamburini again demonstrates his strong dramatic vocal and physical presence as the sinister Zuniga, while Luke Gabbedy was a dashing Escamillo and carried off his spectacular entrance with flair, raising the heat with his full-throated rendition of the famous “Toreador Song”.

Jane Ede as Frasquita, Nicholas Jones as Remendado, Christopher Hillier as Dancairo
Jose Maria Lo Monaco as Carmen, Margtaret Trubiano as Mercedes.

Brian Thompson’s set design is a masterpiece of uncluttered simplicity. A circular stage flanked by ramps on either side, allows easy access for the huge team of singers and dancers who populate the crowd scenes. Towering red letters spelling out, in reverse, the name of the opera, mask three levels of scaffold platforms which the ensemble spectacularly inhabit at various points in the opera. A great red neon-outlined bull signals the excitement of the bull-ring, with further spectacle added by the military tank, and large truck which are flown in suspended on huge cranes.  Micaela, (Natalie Aroyan in superb voice) sings her most poignant aria suspended high in the air on top of a huge metal container.

Equally spectacular are Julie Lynch’s remarkable costumes in a cacophony of colours, ranging through glamorous black, white and yellow La Dolce Vita inspired costumes for the ensemble ladies to swirling black and red gypsy skirts for the female dancers.

The cast of "Carmen" 

Kelley Abbey has created a series of extraordinary dance sequences, which are superbly executed by the large dance team, among them, Amy Campbell, who provides a highlight performing a spectacular number in which her huge red silk skirt is manipulated by six male dancers to stunning effect.

Amy Campbell in "Carmen" 

Absolutely In his element with this opera, Brian Castles-Onion, conducts from beneath the stage, moving Bizet’s melody laden score along at a cracking pace, while Tony David Cray’s miraculous sound design insures that each glorious voice is heard to maximum effect.

Once again the excellent Opera Australia chorus rose to the occasion, and not even a passing shower, just as the cigarette girls emerged to complain about the heat on the factory floor, could dampen the excitement created by this remarkable production which captures perfectly the drama, passion and spectacle inherent in this opera.

Adrian Tamburini as Zuniga
Andeka Gorrotxategi as Don Jose

The full magnitude of their achievement became fully apparent when the vast company of singers, dancers, orchestra and technical crew took to the stage for final bows, allowing the audience to appreciate the number of people necessary to bring this gigantic project to fruition.

In his program note, Dr Haruhisa Handa, chairman of the International Foundation for Arts and Culture, notes that the IFAC have extended the title sponsorship of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, which “will enable Opera Australia to continue to craft its unique brand of operatic spectacle”.  Welcome news as Opera Australia continues to demonstrate their expertise in their staging of this unique world class event.

                                                    Photos by Prudence Upton

   This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Stones in his Pocket by Marie Jones

Directed by Chris Bendall. Critical Stages. The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. Thurs- Sat March 23-25 at 8pm. Matinee Sat March 25 at 2pm.

Stones in His Pockets is a quiet two hander with a touch of mayhem and an insight into Irish social history. In the hands of players Grant Cartwright and Sean Hawkins who play multiple characters regardless of age or gender it becomes a gently funny piece that questions cultural stereotyping.

An American film crew comes to a little Irish town to make a film. The locals including young men Charlie and Jake are roped in as extras. John Ford’s 1952 film The Quiet Man came to mind even before one of the characters turned out to be the last surviving extra from that epic.  Against a backdrop of stunning local scenery the real Irish watch Americans play the leads while they play the ones with no lines.

The fantasy of filmmaking comes up against the economic struggles of the two young men.  A third loses his way in drugs as agriculture goes under and he can’t find a future there. Meanwhile the film’s star is ruthlessly trying to catch the local accent through seduction, and the film makers try to plough on with filming even though the locals need time off to be at a mate’s funeral.

The script is not quite as tough about all of this as it might be and tends to leave tensions underdeveloped. But it is worth seeing for the performances of Cartwright and Hawkins, who are masterly in their segues through a very wide range of characters. Throw in Alexander Berlage’s subtle lighting and Dann Barber’s rumpled gorgeous backdrop and it’s likely the themes and the place and the people will remain in the mind.

 Alanna Maclean


Written by Marie Jones
Directed by Chris Bendall
A Critical Stages production
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan to March 25

Review by Len Power 23 March 2017

‘Stones In His Pockets’ by Marie Jones has been around since 1994.  It played successfully in London’s West End for three years and had a 198 performance run on Broadway in 2001 as well as productions in Australia.  With the success of similar plays like ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘Peter And The Star Catcher’ in recent years, it’s not surprising that it’s back again.

The play tells a story of a quiet Irish community dealing with the impact of a Hollywood movie shoot in their town.  Working as extras on the film, two local lads find themselves involved with the Hollywood star and a director who has his own ideas of genuine Irish local colour.  How the various people involved react to a tragedy that occurs adds a serious note to the show.

The fifteen characters in the play are all played by two actors, Grant Cartwright and Sean Hawkins.  Playing everything from the two local lads employed as extras to the female Hollywood star and various members of the film crew and other folk who live in the town, the actors give excellent performances with nicely drawn character work as well as genuine-sounding accents.  They handle high speed changes adeptly and have a great sense of timing for the humorous aspects of the script.

The set, designed by Dann Barber, is attractive and functional and the lighting design by Alexander Berlage is excellent.  Full marks, too, to the lighting operators at the Q.  The lighting cues come thick and fast and were accurately done.   Costume design by Michael Hill was imaginative with effective suggestions of costume for some characters working very well.  Sound design by Nate Edmondson added a fine atmosphere to the show.

Director, Chris Bendall, has staged the show very well, keeping it moving at a frenetic pace and giving the actors clever and imaginative ways to make their fast changes.  His work with the actors has ensured that the characters are clearly delineated, an essential requirement for this show.

The main interest in a show like this is in watching how the actors perform it.  As a result it’s not easy to feel any real involvement in the story.  The show works best when it’s being funny.  When the tragedy occurs during the show it doesn’t have the impact it might have had in a straightforward telling.  Nevertheless, the audience clearly had a good time watching this and the performances of these two strong actors are very enjoyable.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Artcetera’ program (9am Saturdays) and ‘Dress Circle’ (3.30pm Mondays).