By Helena Parker
Ladies in Black was, in the most charming and enjoyable way, a bit of a shambles. Set in the historic Genesian Theatre, where you get a $2 mug of black tea and a Violet Crumble in the intermission, the musical is based on the book by Sydney author Madeleine St. John, University of Sydney alumni and former SUDS member (Sydney University Dramatic Society). It was at Sydney Uni where she met Bruce Beresford, the director of Driving Miss Daisy and Mao’s Last Dancer, who later turned her seminal novel into a feature film in 2018. The musical is based on the author's real life experience of working in the Elizabeth Street David Jones in the 50s, here fictionalised as the department store Goodes.
Ladies in Black captures a moment in Australian history, 1959, where the country is on the cusp of change, almost ready to shake off the traditional values of the 50’s. In this world, ‘continentals’ from Europe are a threat, and women attending University is still a fantasy for most. The musical does not tackle these cultural issues in any direct way however, but addresses them lightly and simply through humour and rose tinted glasses. There seems to be a great affection for difficult characters within the musical such as the domineering father who is reluctant to allow his child-genius daughter to attend university.
This is a very, very soft critique of Australian in the 1950s, and therefore palatable and easy to swallow for most audience members. I do not disagree with this lighted hearted approach and indeed the musical was very joyful, however it is a slightly reductive perspective on a difficult time in history. Smith even quotes in her Director’s note that the musical is set in a “simpler era of Australian history”, when ‘men where men and women were women’ presumably. In this way, Ladies in Black falls into the category of sanitised period pieces, where the past is tidied up and cleaned for the enjoyment of the audience, where little is demanded of them and worldviews are rarely challenged.
Despite this the musical was in fact very enjoyable and delightfully daggy. I did find myself daydreaming about becoming a ‘Goodes’ shopgirl in my LBD and curl-set hair. The quaint, unfussy surrounds of the Genesian Theatre and very enthusiastic audience made the experience quite sweet, actually, although this could not detract from the inherent production problems in the musical and the surprisingly long run time.
There were some issues at a basic level; actors standing in darkness outside of their spotlights, faulty microphones, missed lighting and sound cues, enunciation issues and one gentleman in the cast who seemed to have forgotten almost the entirety of the dance moves. Most of these problems are easy to fix, but left unchecked only distract the audience from the production and the performances from the actors and musicians. I commend the Genesian Theatre for being a venue that promotes and nurtures new talent, however these are the absolute basics for performance, and such an old, established venue should provide assistance to directors and performers on these matters.
On a wider note, there were also some discrepancies between the acting and vocal abilities of some of the cast (and a few questionable accents), although they imbued their performances with genuine enthusiasm. Rosanna Hurely did a commendable job as the main character Lisa/Lesley and anchored the production with her consistent performance. Special mention should also go to Elizabeth MacGregor and Jenny Jacobs, for their sophisticated performances as Goodes ‘ladies in black’ shop-girls.
There are a few catchy and memorable songs within the musical, although again, they are of varying quality. I heartily enjoyed ‘He’s a Bastard’ (it spoke to my soul) which featured a clever choreography of teacups being passed around the grumpy group of dissatisfied women (again, spoke to my soul). Also a highlight was Lisa’s solo song ‘By the Fountain’ set by the iconic Hyde Park Archibald Fountain, which featured the hidden cast providing echoes.
It seemed that most of the catchy and memorable songs took place in Act One of the musical, with the quality fast declining in the Second Act. Here, it appears as if the songwriter Tim Finn ran out of inspiration, as the songs became merely lines of dialogue set to music, which were indistinguishable from one another. Some songs also seemed to be lacking in subtlety, with the characters very clearly and un-creatively stating exactly how they feel, such as the number ‘Lesley or Lisa’. Most of the cast did a fine job in making these songs work, and the orchestra provided a good accompaniment.
Ladies in Black is far from a perfect show, it is technically flawed and pretty rough around the edges. However the audience (perhaps myself included?) loved it and walked out of the theatre smiling. Ladies in Black is a quaint night in the theatre, and you may even get a Violet Crumble out of it.
Image Credit; Vicki Skarratt
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.