Ladies in Black

Sydney Festival Ladies in Black - photo by Lisa TomasettiLadies 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.

Set in Sydney in the 1950’s, our heroine lives at home with loving, protective parents. Her father is dead against her going to University, 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 which 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 discovers Patty’s marriage is faltering because of her apparent inability to conceive; that Fay is worrying because she is approaching her 30th birthday and becoming tired 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 father, Mr. Stone. Though Bobby Fox’s Hungarian accent is questionable, his singing and dancing is sheer delight.

Simon Phillip’s direction is slick and inventive, drawing on some witty choreography by Andrew Hallsworth, and utilising to the full, Gabriela Tylesova’s stylish setting with its three revolving stages which allows furniture and actors to glide gracefully into place for 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 deliciously complex and A Nice Australian Girl quite charming. But none of them remain in the memory after the curtain comes down. Hopefully a cast recording will help rectify that.

And while it’s a pleasant relief to be able to enjoy a musical without being pinned to the back wall by the over-amplified sound, perhaps the sound balance in the Lyric Theatre can be tweaked just enough to allow those seated in the Dress Circle to catch all of Tim Finn’s wry and clever lyrics.

Although rather dwarfed in the huge Lyric theatre, and despite nothing of any real consequence happening in a storyline in which the inevitable happy endings can be seen a mile-off, the creatives and cast of Ladies in Black have successfully created a charming slice-of-life musical which, without becoming cloying, taps into a nostalgia for a period still lurking in the memories of many who will make up its audience, and which is likely to insinuate its way into their hearts, in much the same way as Nick Enright’s Summer Rain.

Ladies in Black
Sydney Lyric Theatre, Pirrama Road, Pyrmont
Performance: Friday 6 January 2017
Season continues to 22 January 2017

Following its Sydney season, Ladies in Black will be presented at the Playhouse – Queensland Performing Arts Centre (28 January – 19 February), Regent Theatre, Melbourne (25 February – 19 March), and the Canberra Theatre Centre (27 March – 2 April). For more information, visit: for details.

Image: Ladies in Black – photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Review: Bill Stephens