Review / Nostalgic for ‘Ladies in Black’

music / “Ladies in Black”. Presented by Queensland Theatre and the Canberra Theatre Centre Canberra Theatre until April 2. Reviewed by BILL STEPHENS

“LADIES in Black” is a gentle, nostalgic little musical about a young girl, Lisa (Sarah Morrison), who takes a temporary job in Goodes department store; while she waits for the results of her leaving certificate examination, which she hopes will be good enough to allow her to study at University. 

“The Women in Black”… set in an eccentric department store closely resembling David Jones. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Set in Sydney in the 1950s, our heroine lives at home with loving, protective parents. Her father discourages her University ambitions, encouraging her instead to set her sights on getting married and bringing up a family.

Goode’s department store looks a lot like David Jones, and employs sales assistants who actually offer service to its customers, among them Fay (Ellen Simpson) and Patty (Madeleine Jones), who befriend Lisa. She also meets Magda (Natalie Gamsu), a glamorous Hungarian migrant who runs the Model Gowns department where Lisa discovers a gorgeous dress that she hopes to be able to afford, at a discounted price, if it is not sold in the January sales.  

Magda takes a liking to Lisa and invites her to her Mosman home, where Lisa meets Magda’s Hungarian husband, Stefan (Greg Stone) and is introduced to their Bohemian lifestyle and friends, who include the charming refugee, Rudi (Bobby Fox). Gradually, she discovers a whole different world to the one that she has been brought up in.

Along the way Lisa learns that Patty’s marriage is faltering because of her apparent inability to conceive; that Fay is worrying because she is approaching her 30th birthday and is weary of the procession of dull men who pass through her life, and that everyone is intrigued by their kindly work colleague, Miss Jacobs (Trisha Noble) who won’t reveal her first name.

Impressive performances abound with Sarah Morrison capturing exactly the right tone as the blossoming young schoolgirl, Lisa. Natalie Gamsu is terrific as the elegantly hedonistic, Magda, as is Greg Stone in the dual roles of Magda’s husband, Stefan, and Lisa’s gruff father, Mr. Miles. Also playing two contrasting roles, Tricia Noble charms as the kindly Miss Jacobs, and provides some genuine belly laughs as the feisty Mrs Crown, and although Bobby Fox’s Hungarian accent is questionable, his singing and dancing are a sheer delight.   

Simon Phillip’s direction is slick and inventive, drawing on some witty, unobtrusive choreography by Andrew Hallsworth, and utilising to the full, Gabriela Tylesova’s stylish setting with its three revolving stages that allows furniture and actors to glide gracefully into place for the many changes of locale, and propel the storyline clearly and effectively.  Tylesova’s lovely costumes also successfully capture the emerging elegance of the period.

Tim Finn has provided some catchy songs, perhaps a few too many, but among them “The Bastard Song” is laugh-out-loud funny, “Sales talk” is deliciously complex and “A Nice Australian Girl” is quite charming.  

Though nothing of any real consequence happens in the storyline in which the inevitable happy endings can be seen a mile-off, the creatives and cast of “Ladies in Black” have succeeded in creating a charming slice-of-life musical which, without becoming cloying, taps into a nostalgia for a period still lurking in the memories of many in the audience, gently visiting themes of feminism, domestic violence and multi-culturalism along the way.

Canberra is one of only four cities to have had the opportunity to have seen this Helpmann Award-winning Australian musical. It finishes its current tour in Canberra on Sunday. Don’t miss the opportunity. You’ll kick yourself if you do.  

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