Ladies In Black
Queensland Theatre Company
November 16 – December 6 2015
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
She was fifty-two when The Women In Black was published in 1993 and it is one of her four novels to be set in Australia. It is difficult not to see Madeleine herself in the clever and sensitive young heroine, Lesley Miles, though the well observed lower middle class family background she describes with such affection was certainly not her own, as she grew up in the smart suburb of Castlecrag, on Sydney’s North Shore.
The interplay of the saleswomen (who dressed in black in 1960, when the novel is set, just as they do now) is so convincing, so comprehensively realised, that I assumed Madeleine had a holiday job there while a student, but she insisted this was not the case, ‘although I often went shopping there with my mother’.
Bruce Beresford – Madeleine and Me (Foreword, The Women In Black)
Mum had Madeleine St John’s novella on her Kindle and neglected to mention the fact until a week out from opening night of QTC’s brand new musical based upon the text…a busy week! I read it in tiny snippets between everything else happening and loved it! Without even trying to imagine how the light-hearted look at the women of Sydney’s (imagined) Goodes department store could ever be turned into a musical, I enjoyed St John’s candid writing. When Tim Finn read it, having picked up a copy one day at Brisbane Airport, he was inspired to write a musical.
With its catchy tunes, intriguing characters, witty lyrics and fabulous frocks, Ladies In Black is an instant classic.
Finn’s score is a satisfyingly contemporary mix of pop, rock, jazz and musical theatre, and the book by Carolyn Burns retains the social political thread and lovely laconic wit of the original text. Simon Phillips’ savvy direction and a stellar cast bring the sweet stories of the ladies to life.
The show opens with an elegant riot of vivid colour and a catchy little tune, I Got It At Goodes, which not only reminds me of another (actual) department store’s jingle but also, for some reason, of Katie in Calamity Jane, singing Keep It Under You Hat. It’s cute, and sets the tone for something not nearly as serious as we might have expected. That’s not to say Finn hasn’t addressed a multitude of national sins, it’s just that it doesn’t delve deeply, darkly into them. Why should it? We’re merely obliged throughout to glance at the inherent misogyny and casual racism of our country and at the very least, asked to question it. With a deft hand, a full heart and a mischievous wink, Finn has neatly interwoven all the issues still relevant today.
Another little ditty, Bastard, is set to become an Australian classic. In the context it comes complete with precision teacup choreography and an ire that seems to have faded with the curtains, leaving a sort of 1950s secret women’s business resignation (and plenty of eye rolls) in its place. The audience is in fits of laughter. What a beauty!
I Just Kissed A Continental is a favourite on opening night too, and one of the show’s highlights; a gorgeous, giggle inducing ensemble number that showcases the delectable voice and style of Naomi Price.
If you’ve seen her before you know she’s a standout and it’s this role that reaffirms what Brisbane has known for some time now – she’s a shining star with a very bright future. Price positively glows, and despite the number of amazing women on stage my eyes are drawn to her. She’s completely bewitching.
Kate Cole has a similar magical presence on stage, relishing the role of the Buyer, Miss Cartridge, her uber confidence and staunch support of the sisterhood at once formidable and awe-inspiring. I can see now the basis for the rave reviews and Green Room nom for her performance in Grounded (Red Stitch) and I wish I’d seen it too.
Carita Farrar Spencer succeeds in making memorable and very moving, the most unrewarding role in the show.
Lesley’s Lisa’s mother is a quiet champion of women’s rights, or at least of her daughter’s rights if not her own, and so beautifully and delicately captures the qualities of every ordinary housewife and mother of the fifties, I feel it’s her story that could be afforded more time and care. Think Pleasantville…or the quieter moments of Mad Men. The tone is exactly right. Let’s see more of her story in future developments.
Christen O’Leary is Magda, the Slovene who cares for the Model Gowns of Goodes and the women who can afford to take the best dresses out on the town. She’s the uptown Rizzo of the “reffos”, with snazzy style and the sassy attitude to match. She’s intimidating until you get to know her (few are bold enough to do so), and in the most efficiently fairytale godmotherly way, she takes Lisa under her wing to groom her for the real world. O’Leary brings the gowns to life, endowing them with individual personalities as she introduces them to us by name. They become characters themselves and we grow so fond of “Lisette” – the gown that Lisa has her eye on – that, surprisingly, the stakes are raised sufficiently to set up a truly happy ending.
As far as the story goes, it really is Lisa’s show though, and Sarah Morrison, in her QTC debut, is glorious as she grows up and into the perfect cocktail frock to conquer the world AND remain the apple of her daddy’s eye.
The men play pivotal roles, each responsible for filling in some of the gaps, because has there ever been a shop girl who tells the whole truth to the friends on the floor? Certainly not Patty, whose husband takes off for a little while to leave her to “cope” Lucy Maunder brings grace and gorgeousness to this simpering role. As her husband, Andrew Broadbent enjoys as much as the audience does, an extended moment in the mens’ room, lamenting and singing whilst pissing, as you do.
Greg Stone is the delightful foil to O’Leary’s Magda. They have some wonderful moments together, their easy humour and teamwork refreshing. Bobby Fox is Fay’s swoon worthy “sweet Hungarian”, Rudi, perfectly fitting the bill as the intelligent, bold as brass newcomer to the country, on the hunt for an Australian wife. Fox is a dancer and doesn’t miss an opportunity to step nimbly through a couple of outstanding musical numbers.
Under MD Isaac Heyward, playing orchestrations by Guy Simpson, the band is present on stage and could perhaps become a more integral part of the mirrored pillared design, which is beautifully, stylishly conceived by Gabriela Tylesova (also responsible for the frocks, with Costume Superviser, Nathalie Ryner), and lit elegantly by David Walters, as opposed to simply sitting upstage, out of the way. This makes perfect sense only for the party scene, which consists of the company providing silhouettes behind a scrim as O’Leary delivers the monologue from the original text, greeting and observing her guests in a civilised flurry of hostess-with-the-mostess excitement and charm. I have to admit, I had expected a big song and dance number at this point!
The fabulous frocks, the detailed score, the beautifully drawn characters and witty scenes, even the funny forced rhymes support a charming tale, insightfully, carefully shaped by Director, Simon Phillips. Set to become part of the lexicon, this is a show that genuinely delights and entertains. See this talented cast bring to life Tim Finn’s Ladies In Black in Brisbane before December 6 and in Melbourne in January 2016.