Ladies in Black

Theatre, Musicals
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

The Queensland Theatre Company's smash hit musical comedy returns for an encore season in early 2017

In January 2016, Queensland Theatre Company's Ladies in Black won over Melbourne audiences with the big-hearted story of Lisa, the bright, ambitious teenager who joins the ranks of the ladies of a prestigious department store in Sydney during the '50s. 

With music and lyrics by Tim Finn, book by screenwriter Carolyn Burns and direction by Simon Phillips (Priscilla Queen of the Desert), the show is a breezy, fun exercise in teenage dreams and suburban nostalgia, with strong characterisations and plenty of glamorous costumes to boot. 

Ladies in Black returns to Melbourne this month for an encore season. Read our original 4-star review below:

It’s notable that Tim Finn read Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat in preparation for his own musical, Ladies in Black. Something of Sondheim is evidenced in the sparkling wit and word play – the drollness that provides the bulk of the humour – of Finn’s debut. If it lacks the master’s genius with structure, that ability to pull discrete story arcs together into one song, then it’s fair to say that Sondheim's debut showed no signs of it either.

Ladies is a rather faithful adaptation of Madeleine St John’s Women in Black, a '50s-set novel about a young girl called Lesley (played beautifully here by newcomer Sarah Morrison) who gets a summer job at Goodes department store while awaiting her 'leaving results'. Her fellow employees take her under their wings: Patty (Lucy Maunder), sexually frustrated and unable to conceive; Fay (Naomi Price), single and bored by Australian men; and most significantly, Magda (Christen O’Leary), the Hungarian immigrant who manages the 'model gowns' section of the store.

Lesley has decided she’d like to be called Lisa, although the folks at home don’t know this. Mum (Carita Farrer Spencer) and Dad (Greg Stone) want to see her married off and in the kitchen, and it is this tension between aspiration and expectation that provides the engine of the show.

It’s a fairly thin conceit, even for a musical. What elevates it, apart from the terrific music, is the detail in the characterisation; even peripheral roles such as Miss Jacobs (Deidre Rubenstein in fine form) feel fleshed out and nuanced. 

Carolyn Burns should take much of the credit for this, producing a book that is breezy without being flippant. She manages to make words like Ballarat, Wagga and Mossman funny, which has the wondrous effect of making us look at our own culture with strangers’ eyes. 

The female performances are uniformly strong; much effort has been put into the diction and posture indicative of the period, but there is nothing starchy or inorganic about them. Price’s Fay is a total delight, and O’Leary steals every scene she is in. Kate Cole is expert at managing the shift from the clipped Miss Cartwright to the joyless Joy, and Maunder brings real gravitas to the mourning housewife.

The men are hampered somewhat by the restrictive nature of their roles, although Bobby Fox brings all the charm at his disposal as Rudi, the romantic Hungarian who falls for Fay. This imbalance is forgivable, given the emphasis on the cathartic power of female friendships, but it does mean the narrative lacks any resistance or counterpoint.

Director Simon Phillips is in his element here; surfaces glint and dresses pop, and if the myriad happy endings feel a little convenient, they all go down well with champagne. Gabriela Tylesova’s design is great, the teal curtains beautifully offsetting the truly impressive couture. 

Finn’s music is also a highlight, although he has a little way to go in his ambitions towards a full-blooded career as a composer. Some songs are dynamite, like 'He’s a Bastard' and 'I Just Kissed a Continental', but some fall flat dramatically and lyrically. 

Much of Ladies in Black traverses old ground but it’s a testament to the production as a whole that it feels so fresh. It’s light without being lightheaded, incredibly funny but strangely moving, and a winning way to launch the season.

By: Tim Byrne



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