Cast your mind back to the days when going shopping in town meant dressing up – gloves, hat, best suit or dress – and a visit to David Jones, if only to look at the windows.
Ladies in Black, the opening production for the 2016 season of the Melbourne Theatre Company, is a musical romp down memory lane. Set in 1959 Sydney, it was a time when post-war European migrants were known as ‘Continentals’, and a designer frock (on sale) was almost attainable.
Based on Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel The Women in Black, with music and lyrics by Tim Finn, Ladies in Black presents a light-hearted look at post-war Sydney through the lens of a glamorous department store, Goodes.
Lisa (played winsomely by Sarah Morrison) has just finished school and, despite her working class roots, aspires to university and a world of poetry and dreaming. While she awaits her results, Lisa is embarking on her first holiday job – in retail at Goodes.
The audience is transported back to the moment of their first job – working alongside people who seemed so sophisticated and worldly; who didn’t go home to Mum and Dad, but to their husbands, wives or flatmates.
While the musical presents a romantic view of Australian urban life in the 1950s, there are a few hints of brokenness and loss. Deidre Rubenstein’s Miss Jacobs is restrained and dignified and, to her colleagues, a source of idle gossip. The burden of loneliness and grief is not fully explored.
St John had a jaundiced view of Australian men, who are presented as lacking in subtlety, and the audience takes great delight in Finn’s rollicking song ‘He’s A Bastard’, which has a gentle dig at men’s idiosyncrasies.
Director Simon Phillips brings a subtle presentation to a significant moment in Australian history – the awakening of feminism; the cultural and gastronomic impact of refugees; and the entrenched xenophobia.
These themes need little more than a light touch as for most in the audience they are familiar and understood.
This is a musical about women. The 11 performers are engaging and seem to be having a ball. The three biggest problems in need of resolution are: will Lisa be allowed to go to university, will Patty (Lucy Maunder) be able to conceive and will Fay (Naomi Price) find a decent bloke. What is my future? Will I have a family? Will someone love me? Universal questions for us all.
Ladies in Black, playwright Carolyn Burns, music and lyrics by Tim Finn,
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, 16 January-27 February