Five minutes into opening night of Ladies in Black at the Canberra Theatre last night I had that tingly feeling that told me it was going to be a magical performance.
Within eight minutes, I knew that I wanted to book to come again later this week, in a seat nearer to the stage for a closer look at the sparkling frocks and expressive faces of the performers, and to ensure that I catch every line of every clever song in this utterly brilliant Tim Finn-written musical presented by the Queensland Theatre Company.
Of course, I’d long known Ladies in Black would be something special. With music and lyrics by one of our (well, New Zealand’s) finest songwriters and based on one of my favourite novels, The Women in Black, by Madeleine St John, how could it not be?
If the production sounds as though it might be your sort of thing (which if you like theatre, musicals, literature, comedy, fashion, romance and/or great songwriting, it will be), I’d book in now because the crowd who filled the house last night will be out telling their friends to buy tickets today and the show only runs until Sunday with performances at 7.30 tonight, tomorrow and Saturday and 2pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday.
Ladies in Black had its beginnings when Finn, co-writer of Crowded House songs including Always Take the Weather and Four Seasons in One Day and solo writer/performer of hit track Fraction Too Much Friction, randomly bought a copy of the St John novel at Brisbane Airport to read on his way to Bougainville.
Finn says the songs, which vary from hysterically witty and fun to majestic and glorious, started to come to him straight off the page at first reading.
“I wrote it from the heart and followed the tunes,” the former Split Enz band member says, adding that a book like this the Women in Black is “a gift for any songwriter looking for a narrative to explore … Rich enough to provide satisfying themes, but delivered with a lightness of touch that invites interpretation”.
Ladies in Black is a coming of age story set in 1950s Sydney about a “busy bookworm”, Lisa Miles, who takes a summer job at posh department store F.G. Goode’s while waiting to learn how she has fared in the Leaving. Lisa wants to be a poet, and muses about and loses herself in the work of William Blake, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy in between more practical discussions with her parents and store colleagues about her future.
She longs to study at university, but her father is horrified at the thought, arranging for her to attend a secretarial course instead.
Introducing Lisa to life beyond school, the family home and their workplace is model gowns department head Magda, a glamorous and fierce “continental” and “refo” who invites her to a luncheon and a New Year’s Eve party where the young woman begins to develop a sense of style and self-assurance.
Lisa’s colleagues in the cocktail frock department have relationship dramas of their own to deal with: Patty is married to a man who pays her little attention and is just as sad as she that no children have come along, while Fay is single at 29 and desperately seeking Mr Right – preferably one who will forgive her for accidentally falling for a married man some years earlier.
The audience is initially wowed by the glamour of the F.G. Goode’s dresses and intrigued by the actors’ depictions of life in a busy department store, but soon becomes emotionally involved in the three main stories, hoping that Lisa will be able to attend university, that Patty and her husband can find happiness together and that Fay will fall in love. Each of the three plots has the air of a fairytale about it, as well as exploring timeless themes around feminism and xenophobia.
I adored this show as much as if not more than old favourites like Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Cats as well as more recent musical hits like Matilda.
It’s a must-see, with highlights like the Bastard Song and I Just Kissed a Continental set to become classics. If the soundtrack were available for sale, I would have purchased it last night too, but alas, it isn’t. Yet.
I’m willing to bet a filmmaker somewhere is hatching plans to turn the show into a film, and I reckon it too will be a delight.
Ladies in Black is at the Canberra Theatre till Sunday. See the theatre’s website for more information and bookings.