Theatre: Ladies in Black

I went to Ladies in Black with high expectations. As I sat near the Regent Theatre waiting, I could see the posters with the quote from The Age declaring it, ‘the best Aussie musical since Priscilla went global.’ It’s a lot to live up to, but the bracingly heartwarming and funny Ladies in Black was up to the job.

Set in Sydney in 1959, the musical takes place at the end of a conservative decade and at the cusp of the cultural revolution of the ’60s. Ladies in Black follows Lisa (Sarah Morrison), as she gets a job at Goodes department store, and with the help of the ladies in black, comes into her own. An adaptation of the novel, The Women in Black, Ladies in Black captured the late fifties, with its gorgeous costuming and appropriately-placed slang, but refused to become bogged down by it.

Ladies in Black navigated the line between historical accuracy and modern relevancy with precision. In an argument between Lisa and her father (Greg Stone), he exclaims, ‘We gave you the vote!’ echoing the post-feminist fallacy of ‘Isn’t sexism over?’ And it’s hard not to see the modern parallels through Magda’s (Natalie Gamsu) experience as a refugee when she looks to the water, singing about how she is ‘lucky to be alive.’ In a time before the White Australia policy was abolished, we’re reminded of how attitudes toward immigrants and refugees are always shifting, as seen in the hilarious song ‘I just kissed a Continental.’

It was the small details that charmed me the most. The cups clinking in time with the music during the performance of ‘Bastard.’ The snow from one beautiful imaginary sequence turning to sand in the next scene. The butterflies on Lisa’s ‘Lisette’ dress a metaphor for her transformation as well as echoing Rudi’s statement on how Australians ‘live in a cocoon.’

The production was so full of energy one could get the impression that it was effortless, but, props to Simon Phillips and Andrew Hollsworth, who managed to make the direction and choreographed seamless. Every action was carefully thought out. This was aided by a deceptively simple set of department store poles and billowing, changing curtains, with beds and sofas and in one case, a urinal, being whisked in and out as needed to produce different settings.

Despite some opening night jitters in the first act, there were solid performances by the entire cast. Natalie Gamsu was wonderful as the ‘cynical’ and sensual Continental and the interplay between her and her husband Stefan, played by Greg Stone, was lovely to watch. Trisha Noble played a wonderfully warm Miss Jacobs, with one scene being particularly heartbreaking.

The show was at its best when it focused on its working women characters. Fay’s romantic woes and Patty’s marital dissatisfaction and subsequent sexual reawakening (played by Ellen Simpson and Madeleine Jones respectively) were far more engaging than the male-focused songs. ‘Bastard’ in particular had a great audience reaction.

In a song-heavy musical, Ladies in Black had a quick tempo and vibrancy that was captured by Tim Finn’s brilliant lyrics, the wordplay of the songs driving the comedic force of the show, which culminated in an uplifting finale. I was warned that I would cry at the end of the show and (spoiler alert) I did.

Score: 9.5/10

Bonus content: Being a lady in black

Before the show, I was lucky enough to be able to interview Madeleine Jones, who plays Patty, about the show and her experiences.

How do you think Ladies in Black, set in 1959, resonates in the present day?

‘We have had audience members, both male and female, approach us after the show and say of a particular character’s journey, “that was my life”. Or “my mother went through the same thing as Lisa”. Or “I remember Sydney back then”. People identify with so many different aspects of this show. It’s also a window into how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go with gender equality and our treatment of people we see as different from ourselves.’

What is your favourite moment onstage performing Patty’s character?’

‘There is a scene towards the end between Patty and her husband Frank, played by Tamlyn Henderson, that I always look forward to. (Spoiler alert) There’s a confrontation, a reconciliation and Tim Finn has written the most glorious, heart-felt and hilarious song that we get to sing.’

‘What has been your favourite memory so far with this cast?’

‘It’s a culmination of little things that makes this company so lovely to be a part of – rushing home with a few of the cast after a show for some heated rounds of Uno; enjoying numerous cakes bought and baked, both for birthdays and just because; the endless supply of sugary treats left for us backstage by the crew. I am lucky to be working with such a generous and talented group of people.’

Ladies in Black will be at the Regent in Melbourne until the 19th of March. You can find ticketing information on their website

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