The plot is set in a 1950s Sydney department store. A young, intelligent, and passionate woman gets her first taste of the world as she takes on a summer job as a shop assistant. She meets the ‘ladies in black’ — the saleswomen whose uniforms are chic black dresses. She finds that each one, young or old, single or married, has their own story of pain and regret and their own hopes and fears.
Determined to do something more with her life than the obligatory secretarial school, followed by marriage and babies, she becomes inspired by one lady in particular. The woman is a cultured and cultivated ‘Continental’ who brilliantly portrays the post-World War II refugees who enriched our city and country so much.
With such loaded themes as woman’s role in the family and society, and the debt we owe our refugees — and with its repeated high-culture references to Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Blake — I am impressed at how decidedly non-pretentious and easy watching Ladies in Black really is.
When you consider that Ladies in Black is directed by Simon Phillips (Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical; Love Never Dies; Dream Lover) and that the music and lyrics are written by Tim Finn of Split Enz and Crowded House, it is no wonder that it is such a smash hit. It won a Helpmann Award as Best New Australian Work.
The audience delights in little things such as a reference to kids playing in the sprinkler, or hearing their suburb named. It seems the writers knew this and took pleasure in weaving in as many Mosmans, Lillyfields, and Tamaramas as poetically possible. The cheesy quadruple rhymes are far from Shakespeare, but there is a definite wit about them nonetheless.
The songs geniously appear to be simple, as catchy as any jingle – the crowd favourite tellingly titled ‘He’s a Bastard’ — but are actually masterfully composed and arranged. The live band is expertly non-interruptive. The singers’ voices are in general serviceable, rather than extraordinary, and the same can be said for the dancers. Thankfully there are Aussie accents galore, with more than one bogan to boot! We are not here to be spellbound by talent or perfection, but rather to revel in normality and familiarity.
I remember not so many years ago a general sentiment amongst Australian theatre-goers that unless the show was coming to us from Broadway or Her Majesty’s Theatre, or was a great success on ‘The Continent’, it wasn’t worth seeing. How glad I am that we as a people have grown into our own, moved past the cultural cringe of our insecure adolescent years and can now proudly celebrate all things Aussie — including Ladies in Black.
Alicia Tripp is the Theatre Specialist for The Plus Ones, reviewing the premiere concerts, symphonies, operas, ballets and stage shows in Sydney. She is a seasoned arts and music critic, as a former journalist for the ABC Limelight magazine and State of the Arts. She has a degree in Media & Communications, English and Music from the University of Sydney.
Ladies in Black runs 3-22 January 2017 at The Lyric Theatre, Sydney before going on tour. Buy tickets now.
The venue is accessible.