Times were a-changing in mid-century Australia: the traditional gender roles were opening up to allow women to work and attend university, immigration was booming, and consumerism was on the rise as people celebrated new prosperity. Lesley Miles is on the cusp of this new world, hoping to step into herself and become something special.
Lesley (Rosanna Hurley) is trying all sorts of new things; she just sat her leaving exams and is hoping to qualify to study poetry at Sydney University, she’s gotten a new job as a sales assistant at Goodes, and she’s building a new identity under a more feminine name Lisa. Being out in the world on her own has opened doors she didn’t know existed including an exciting cosmopolitan relationship with Magda (Sonia Allan) and her “continental” friends. But she struggles escaping the expectations of her father (Robert Green) and mother (Kirsty Redmond).
Ladies in Black with book by Carolyn Burns and music and lyrics by Tim Finn is based on the novel Women in Black by Madeleine St John which shows the many sides to the prim and professional sales assistants in the Sydney department store Goodes. Whether they’re lonely and getting desperate on the search for a husband like Fay (Liberty Thirsk) or their husband has just up and left them over fertility issues like Patty (Elizabeth MacGregor), the ladies in black still turn up every day to flatter their customers like nothing was the matter. It’s a production that welcomes in this new image of the working woman.
Set design from director Debbie Smith frames the stage like a shop display window with blank white expanses on which the very colourful lighting design (Kyle Stephens – Kore Productions) can dazzle. In particular, scenes like Magda’s new year’s party and Fay’s date with Rudi (Greg Thornton) with the twinkling starlight and dreaming blue and red washes created a vibrant and wholesome atmosphere to these characters’ lives.
Smith’s direction certainly played up the dramatic divide between the ladies at work, surrounded by elegant people and clothes, as compared to their tumultuous home lives where the routine of dinner and family feels simply drab. Whether it was the frequent technical malfunctions of an opening night performance or a general lack of enthusiasm for the mid-century morals, the production did lack a spark or energy that made some of Smith’s choreography feel slow and stilted and perhaps overemphasised the melodrama, particularly of Patty’s storyline.
What let down the production as a whole was the disparity in the actors’ singing styles from classical to speak-singing to rounded musical theatre. Tonally these mixes of style were often challenging to the ear and distracted from a sense of consistency throughout the length of the production. This isn’t to detract from any of the clear talented voices including the booming Doug Rumble who played Patty’s husband Frank.
At the heart of it, though, Hurley as the sweet and gutsy Lisa was a pleasure to watch as she branched out and made new discoveries about her place in the world. With Allan, the two made a satisfying duo, representing the kindness possible in women’s friendships when we realise we don’t need to compete. The happy ending of Fay and Rudi’s storyline provides a cheerful antidote to the more questionable attitudes towards immigration and difference displayed throughout the show, also.
Despite their dour black uniforms, the ladies of Goodes live colourful and complex lives that will only grow more interesting as Australia integrates into a post-war world.
Ladies in Black is running at the Genesian Theatre from October 26th – December 7th