In this story
When Madeleine St John published The Essence of the Thing in 1997 it was obvious that in her own particular line of Mozartian comedy, ripplingly funny and light as air but with a poise that could encompass depth as well as sentiment, she was one of the better writers on earth. In the handful of short novels she wrote in late middle age, set in Britain, she comes across as a natural, a literary genius who can contain kingdoms in jewel boxes.
That was not true of her first novel, The Women in Black, which reflected the late ’50s Sydney of her school-leaver adolescence – at once too personal and cumbersome. Which is why it’s a bit surprising that with Ladies in Black that unlovely book has been turned into a musical by Tim Finn and Carolyn Burns, which has been directed with tremendous circus-storming pizzazz by Simon Phillips, and which everyone – everyone who isn’t allergic to the theatricalisation of song – is going to like.
This is an ensemble musical, a girlsy musical with the strongest Australian accent, which is a thousand miles from flawless but which will move people and enchant them. It will tickle them into giggling and make them force back tears. It is, against almost all odds, full of sap and buoyancy and tenderness. It creates a feeling of wide-eyed joy in the face of its own faults and in spite of the fact it is a horizontal show about white-picket-fence Australia when women took it harder than they should have.
Ladies in Black, which premiered in Brisbane in November and is now playing at Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre, is centred on F. G. Goode’s department store – a palpable substitute for Sydney’s David Jones at the height of the Menzies era. The title refers to the group of shop assistants who sell women’s clothes, ranging from workaday dresses to haute couture, to the womenfolk of the nation.
The signature tune, superbly rendered by the stalwarts of the store, is a ravishing opener and it would have been a good idea to reprise it, perhaps at a slower tempo, towards the end of the show.
There’s something delicious, though, about the variety and vivacity, about these demoiselles of downtown Sydney who strut their stuff and voice their half-hidden pains beneath the monstrous and monumental vulgarity of the Art Deco, mirror-faceted pillars that Phillips has got his long-term collaborator, Gabriela Tylesova, to design as a permanent set that effectively caricatures and pays homage to the city of coathanger bridges and crustacean opera houses.
The ladies who sell are a marvel. They are led by Kate Cole, and what a trouper she is – replete with an entirely over-the-top harbourside version of the Prue and Trude voice. There’s also the veteran Deidre Rubenstein – good to see her in a rewarding role – who plays a woman who lost her beloved in World War I and the lustrous Lucy Maunder as a blonde 30-year-old who’s having trouble getting pregnant and staying married. And then there’s Naomi Price, as a woman who’s been jerked around by dropkick blokes.
Into this world of put-upon ladies who flog the functional as well as the stylish comes Sarah Morrison, playing our heroine, who loves poetry and sings a recurring ballad that includes a bit of Blake’s “The Tyger” to prove it. She’s a good girl who’s finished school and has her eyes on the bright lights of Sydney University despite the opposition of her father, who thinks higher education is a cesspit of corruption that makes girls act like boys.
Part of the charm of Ladies in Black is that it presents Australian womanhood in its traditional aspect, as an embattled formation, though humorously and affectionately, from the inside, on the cusp of something that would lead to feminism.
Sarah Morrison is probably a bit too much of a Little Miss Muffet entering the world of glamorous spiders and sidelights, though she can sing, she can be poignant – if a bit cheesily meek – and she looks very pretty when someone makes her take her glasses off – an old trick, a long time coming, but it works. And she’s great when she dons one of those wonder-of-the-earth designer gowns.
The revelation of the heroine’s life is when she falls into the hands of the “Continentals”, led by Christen O’Leary, as a Hungarian lady of immense glamour and hauteur who teaches her about style and salami and wine and a good life that consists of a sophisticated comprehension of the sorrows and splendours of the world, while also lying on the beach in homage to Aussie hedonism.
It sounds like an improbable set of ingredients for a musical, that most monumental and magical, and therefore elusive, of theatrical forms, but Finn and Burns and Phillips pull it off. Does the fact they all originally came from New Zealand have something to do with their rather sumptuous cartoon of the Australian dream?
Finn’s songs don’t include any single potential hit – which is a pity – but they have a consistent energy and bite and a riveting sense of drama as they shift from sass to lilt to uncertainty. The standout number theatrically is a recurrent chorus from the ensemble of women called “He’s a Bastard”, which is a wonderful, quasi-mythopoeic rendition of the battling Aussie females’ view of getting no help from their men.
It’s gloriously funny, it has a pungent element of truth, and it leads to a delectable set of idiot rhymes: bastard/custard/disgusted. It’s fascinating to have Tim Finn, after all the very different songwriting of Split Enz and Crowded House, writing such an intrinsically theatrical suite of songs, so full of dramatic spark and vitamin. The “Bastard” song is no better than Les Mis’s “Master of the House” or My Fair Lady’s “Just You Wait” – but it’s as good, which is saying a bit.
In some ways, Finn’s songs are the most striking triumph of the show. At the same time, it’s true that Burns has produced a viable, consistently involving “book” in the face of material that might seem too episodic or banally naturalistic.
In fact, the set of stories that make up Ladies in Black is blended with real delicacy and feeling and skill. Patty’s (Lucy Maunder’s) hassles about having a baby and her heartbreaks with her log (but not just) of a bloke, Frank (Andrew Broadbent), have a real, slightly startling poignancy.
And throughout all this, Phillips is a powerhouse of chutzpah and defiant invention.
The heroine who likes good books, the Continentals who have rich, rollicking songs as well as corny misconceived idiom jokes in their honour, stand for the high and mighty grandeurs of culture, sometimes sombre, sometimes sunlit.
Our heroine, with their approval, reads the great novel about happy and unhappy families and – lo and behold, at god knows what Broadway-defying expense – we are suddenly in snow-falling St Petersburg as Anna Karenina and Vronsky whisper urgent and bittersweet nothings to each other.
These Russians, they’re so real, says another lady in black convert to the Continentals.
That’s not quite true of Ladies in Black, but the cheesiness and cartoonery it indulges in have something lovely about them. Yes, you would revamp this show if you were trying to take it to Broadway. Perhaps you might recast the role of the central Continental keeper of the great gowns and have, say, Bernadette Robinson, performing like an angel in Phillips’ production of Pennsylvania Avenue just down the road, do it à la Dietrich.
You might tighten here and there; you might go on the quest for the golden boomerang of the big melodic number. But so what? Ladies in Black works as the thing it is. It’s as Australian as Neighbours, as Australian as Prisoner or SeaChange. It’s one of the better attempts that’s been made in a long time to substantiate the dream of an Australian musical. And the fact that it’s such a hymn to womanhood and to this country as a haven for the glories of immigrant culture has a real splendour.
VISUAL ART Nicola Dixon —Close Encounters: the Voyage of Bruni D'Entrecasteaux
Canberra Museum and Art Gallery, until February 14
TECHNOLOGY Pause Fest
Federation Square, Melbourne, February 8-14
VISUAL ART John Peart: Homage
Newcastle Art Gallery, until May 1
BALLET Dance Dialogues
Thomas Dixon Centre, Brisbane, until February 20
MUSICAL Shen Yun
Adelaide Festival Theatre, February 9
Arts Centre, Melbourne, February 20-24
Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, February 26-28
Empire Theatre, Toowoomba, March 2
Arts Theatre, Gold Coast, March 4-5
Lyric Theatre, Sydney, March 8-13
CULTURE Sydney Chinese New Year Festival
Various venues, Sydney, until February 21
THEATRE The Tribe
Surry Hills Backyards, Sydney, until February 7
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 6, 2016 as "Black’s beauty".
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