Ladies in Black is the new Australian grown musical to join the Sydney Festival. Based on Madeline St John’s novel. The Women in Black, adapted by Carolyn Burns and directed by Simon Phillips (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Love Never Dies, First Wives Club), with music and lyrics from Tim Finn (Split Enz and Crowded House) this is an nostalgic snapshot of White Australian life in 1950’s Sydney. Here we explore an era of cultural transition from the repression of the 50s to the social liberations of the 60’s through the lens of a high street fashion store from the perspective of the women who work there.
We follow the main protagonist, Lisa (Sarah Morrison) an intelligent and ambitious school leaver who embarks on a journey from the suburbs into the big city where she joins the staff in the cocktail frocks department of F.G Goodes, a thinly veiled David Jones, as they prepare for the Christmas rush. Here, she befriends the other sales assistants including Miss Jacobs (Trisha Noble), a warm but distant older seamstress with a heartbreaking and mysterious past, and Patty (Madeline Jones) who is distraught when it appears she and her emotionally distant husband can’t bear the children they so long for.
Lisa yearns to pursue her aspirations to become an academic and a poet, despite her father’s archaic reservations as he hopes to railroad her into a career as a secretary. She is soon taken under the wing of exotic Hungarian fashionista and fairy god-mother figure Magda (Natalie Gamsu), who oversees the fabulous model gowns department. Magda and her eccentric husband Stefan (Greg Stone) open the doors to an exciting new realm of worldly possibilities from fashion and European dining to classic literature. Their young free-spirited and single “continental” friend Rudi (Bobby Fox) soon falls for Fay (Ellen Simpson), a disillusioned singleton, bored of the Aussie lads and on the lookout for a suitable partner.
The costume design and staging bright, bold and basic, playfully evoked the time and place broadly, but lacking much detail or extravagance, despite its strong fashion focus and iconic location. A smaller venue may have worked better to retain the theatrical magic that was at times lost in the cavernous 2,000 seat theatre at the Lyric. The songs offered a range of Broadway-like pieces to jazz and blues numbers with occasionally catchy lyrics despite their frequent use of rudimentary rhyming couplets.
The performance is punctuated with funny quips, Australian vernacular and playful references to the Sydney landscape which sent ripples of recognition and laughter through the crowd. There were occasional stunning moments and scenes that were imaginative and beautifully executed, however, the story and various subplots are clunky low-stakes tales, with many pivotal moments skimmed over, leaving audience lost at points. The dramatic performances were strong overall; with standouts by Gamsu, Morrison and Fox. The characters were lovable and enjoyable to follow but ultimately lacked much character development or depth beyond their immediate concerns.
The story is uplifting and good spirited, with great potential and would have been possible to achieve greatness, had they taken greater leaps of faith and pushed the boundaries more in narrative and design. The performance is charming, well meaning, and very much achieved what it set out to, but overall was bland and doesn’t leave the viewer with much more beyond a pleasant evening at the theatre.
Ladies in Black is at the Sydney Lyric Theatre until January 22, and then tours to Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra.
Tickets $75-$125 + Booking fee
Duration 150 mins including interval