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.