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.