Alana, an actor, and Lee, a choreographer, both attended this show on behalf of Theatre Now. This is their combined review.
Sydney Festival is a time where the theatre scene is really given an opportunity to shine. The city pulses with a vibrancy that attracts many onlookers who may not usually see the stage as their ‘go-to’ resting place.
The city is busy, the theatres are full, the venues are packed with art, music and dance and given that there is so much variety, you must choose carefully. Tickets sell fast, queues can be long and there is nothing worse than hearing someone say… ‘Oh you didn’t see it? Such a shame. It was amazing.’
Ladies in Black is a rare creature: an all new Australian musical. Based on the delightful comedy of manners novel The Women in Black by Madeleine St John, this nostalgic piece of theatre harks back to the Australia of yesteryear, where men were rough and ready and women were allowed to work, but university was out of the question.
As the show’s reputation precedes it, Ladies in Black has had several successful runs in Brisbane and Melbourne. It even won the Helpmann Award for Best New Australian Work last year… and yet, despite the wonderful Aussie accent and easy laughs, there are obvious flaws.
St John’s original novel tells the story of young dreamer and bookworm Lesley Miles (Sarah Morrison) who’s just landed a coveted summer job working at the glamorous department store F.G. Goodes. It’s here that women come to be understood, to have their needs met and their desires exceeded.
Lesley starts work in the Ladies’ Frocks department, where the saleswomen wear chic black dresses and deal in satin and chiffon. For Lesley, who changed her name to Lisa on her application, this job is a chance to experience and explore a world far from the one her conservative parents have built for her.
But to her colleagues Fay (Ellen Simpson), Patty (Madeleine Jones) and Miss Cartwright (Kate Cole) she’s just another seasonal worker here to help for Christmas. It doesn’t take long, however, for Lisa to catch the eye of Magda (Natalie Gamsu), the flamboyant and exotic doyenne of the Model Gowns department. Magda appears to wear what she wants, and deals in original couture from the likes of Dior and Chanel.
Magda’s European sensibility is mocked by her colleagues, and they call her a “crazy continental” more than a few times throughout. But Lisa is immediately entranced by Magda’s worldliness and, much like a Robert Frost Poem, is encouraged to follow a path less travelled but much more exciting — to the dismay of her parents; in particular her father.
It doesn’t seem the most likely foundation from which to build a musical, but Composer Tim Finn, Director Simon Phillips and Playwright Carolyn Burns have done just that.
The creative team have remained true to the essence of the novel, delivering a simple coming-of-age story quite charmingly, and there are many fantastic elements to this show.
Performances are mostly strong. Morrison is the perfect ingenue, Simpson and Jones provide great support, Cole displays some excellent comic timing and Gamsu shines brilliantly. But on the whole characters lack depth. They are written and directed with broad strokes, losing nuance and subtlety.
Finn’s score is relatively accurate for the period with a few contemporary touches, but often felt banal and his lyrics lacked substance. The songs aren’t particularly memorable, save for the titular ‘Ladies in Black’ sung by the whole cast, and ‘I Just Kissed a Continental’ by Ellen Simpson. Women sing about the inequality of the sexes as they stir their tea in ‘Bastard Song’. They explore their concerns at telling the men they love that they are no longer “virginal”. Men sing about their struggles in conceiving a child as they pause to take a leak at a urinal and parents boast to young women that they should refrain from stepping into the world of higher education because, after all, they should be happy with what they have — the vote! Immigrants are viewed as humorous devices and the indigenous population is not referenced at all.
However, the orchestra, lead by Musical Director David Young, plays with gusto. It was wonderful to see them being acknowledged throughout, and nice that someone thought about their sun safety and provided giant colourful umbrellas for the beach scene.
The costumes and set are beautifully envisioned by Gabriela Tylesova, and slick direction by Phillips helps energise the piece through use of the multiple revolves. His idea of the early Aussie lifestyle resonates, although there was a definite energy and excitement missing, even amongst the most beautiful of dresses and colourful of characters.
Andrew Hallsworth’s movement contains his usual flair and strong choreographic authorial voice. He utilises the space well and expands the physical repertoire of the characters in such a way that some of the more mediocre moments are given levity and colour. Moments that would easily have been filled with a larger ensemble, given the size of the space of the venue, are rescued and remain intriguing.
This is a musical that means well. It has heart and charm and cares about its women. But it doesn’t delve deep enough into the concerns of the day to be truly challenging or engaging. Perhaps the show was engulfed by the enormous space of the Lyric Theatre for its effects to be felt past the first four rows. It’s light-hearted, funny and family friendly, but there is more to this show. There is more to be said and explored, and more emotional weight to be given to the journey of these women.
Playing at Sydney Lyric Theatre until January 22nd, and then at the Canberra Theatre Centre from January 27th.
Alana Kaye & Lee Anderson – Theatre Now