Sleek, stylish and utterly winning
By Caitlin McGrane
The lead-up to Ladies in Black has been, for me, quite mysterious. It is the creative brainchild of Carolyn Burns (North by Northwest) and Tim Finn, so my expectations were suitably high, particularly because the production is also directed by Simon Phillips (North by Northwest). During the interval of Ladies in Black I struggled to think whether I had ever seen an Australian musical – would Priscilla or Strictly Ballroom count? And generally speaking musicals aren’t my thing, but Ladies in Black was jolly good fun, uproariously funny, and most importantly melted my feminist heart.
It is the gentle, uplifting coming-of-age story of Lisa (Sarah Morrison), a shy, bookish Sydney teenager in the 1950s and her job at Goodes’ department store. Her colleagues in cocktail frocks Fay (Naomi Price) and Patty (Lucy Maunder), along with the magnificent Magda (Christen O’Leary) and lovely Miss Jacobs (Deidre Rubenstein) softly introduce her to life in the adult world. Although excellently played by Morrison, I found Lisa was sometimes competing for stage space with other characters in ways that felt, to me, a little jarring. That is not to say that anyone or any scene was unnecessary, I think writer Carolyn Burns did an exceptional job of rounding out every character as much as she could, to me this seemed like the consequence of not wanting to leave anyone out because they were all so worth seeing. I particularly enjoyed the (wonderfully oft-repeated song) about men being bastards and the way in which it was the male characters that were sidelined and showed shame for their sexual appetites, neatly subverting historical convention and giving the play a truly modern edge.
My only reservations about the whole production are: I would have loved to see the New Year’s Eve party, and some lines from other scenes sometimes felt like unnecessary exposition. Even though O’Leary’s Magda was terrific rattling through the evening’s events at breakneck speed, I would have enjoyed seeing Lisa and Fay dancing; however, I appreciate that the focus of the play was the women, not their male beaus.
The play is beautifully staged, and the opening of the second act was a particular highlight. The band (Gerard Assi, David Hatch, Matt Hassall, Jo To and Paul Zabrowarny) playing the music (nicely visible behind the stage) were outstanding – each scene felt accompanied by the perfect jazz riff or subtle tinkling of atmospheric music.
Unsurprisingly the costumes (from designer Gabriela Tylesova) were breathtaking, and now I really want to own at least one cocktail frock. Lighting (designed by David Walters) was suitably impressive – moving seamlessly from snowy street to sunny beach to moody bar.
My usual aversion to musicals has been swiftly demolished by this beautiful performance: it was extremely difficult not to get caught up in the whimsical daydreams of all the characters, and I left feeling as though it was the first production I had seen in a long time that didn’t talk down to the audience and really relished in the shiny, glossy newness of a beautiful dress.
Ladies in Black is now playing at The Sumner Theatre at the Melbourne Theatre Company in Southbank until 27 February 2016. More information and tickets at: http://www.mtc.com.au/plays-and-tickets/season-2016/ladies-in-black
Image by Rob Maccoll