Ladies in Black

Sally Hussey

A comedy of mid-twentieth century manners, Ladies in Black is a paean to an optimistic future.
Ladies in Black

Photo by Rob Maccoll.

Opening MTC’s current season, the Queensland Theatre Company’s production Ladies in Black is a comedy of manners set in the cocktail section of the fictional Goodes Department store - a thinly veiled reference to David Jones in Sydney in the late 1950s.

Tim Finn’s foray into musical theatre, arrived at through ​a serendipitous airport reading purchase and three years in the making, is a collaboration by composer and lyricist Finn, director Simon Phillips and writer Carolyn Burns. Burns' book is based on Madeleine St Johns first novel, The Women in Black which was originally published in 1993 but largely languished until the Text Classics re-issue in 2009.


Translating St John’s novel of contemporary manners, Ladies in Black references the female sales staff whom, administering to the sartorial needs of Sydney middle-class women, transition in and out of the black frocks between department store life and various home selves.

Protagonist, L​esley Miles (Sarah Morrison) enters the all-female world as temporary sales staff, renaming herself 'Lisa' on application. Her transition compliments the fictional world, where shopping for a new dress is a thinly veiled desire for shopping for a new life.

The play spans the department store’s pre-Christmas rush to January sales, providing a secondary frame for Lisa’s finishing school and awaiting the results of her leaving certificate. Seventeen-year old Lisa wants to go to University and be a poet. (Her oft-quoted William Blake refrain of 'Tyger Tyger' registers Lisa's timid transition from school-learnt poetry to finding her own voice.)

The all-female world of frocks and romance might otherwise appear an accession to traditional femininity. But the notion of gowns and haute couture is a vehicle for the transformation of dreams to reality that registers the shift from the confines of domesticity to the play’s idealised world of literature and learning.

The production’s humour, and appeal, lies in its 1950s setting. Designer Gabriela Tylesova’s set maintains the feel of the novel’s late-fifties setting, while the dialogue relishes in the ‘golly gosh’ patois, in particular the comedic resonance of ‘cosmopolitan’ to describe anything and everything European.

But Ladies in Black is a coming-of-age story that orbits around the confines of gender. Lisa’s intellectual journey is inhibited by the 1950s sexism embodied by father, Mr Miles (Greg Stone). ‘No daughter of mine is going to a cesspit of a university’. The salvation of education is the play’s central tenet - ‘A clever girl is the most wonderful thing in all creation,’ Miss Jacobs (Diedre Rubenstein) proffers to Lisa, adding, ‘Be as clever as ever you can – it puts their noses out of joint’.

But the short reach to ​21st century Australia is palpable. Finn’s lyrics and compositions are current. Lisa’s entrée into university education via shop girl experience is a way of not settling for less. With lyrics like ‘He’s a Bastard/a standard issue bastard’, the play doesn’t present caricatures of 50s masculinity, as much as play tactfully around questions of gender. Set around women having a cup of tea, the object of the humble teacup become rhythmic instruments, punctuating their oppression. Sexual repression, too, is touched on in the storyline of Frank’s sterility, who laments his inability to produce progeny.

Equally palpable are questions around perceptions of refugees, heightened in Finn’s finely crafted yet playful lyrics: ‘she just kissed a continental/has she gone completely mental’. Magda’s haute-couture association (echoes of St John’s own mother) presents not only the dichotomy between Australian and European sensibilities but, ironically, extend to the play's pursuit of equality. Hungarian ‘refo’ couple Magda (Christen O’Leary) and Nietzsche-reading Stefan (Greg Stone) are more egalitarian in marriage,  while the relationship between ‘cosmopolitan’ Magda and self-named ‘Lisa’ gently reworks the limitations of Lesley’s family world, where her mother (Carita Farrer Spencer) adjusting her daughter's hems presents the epitome of ‘women putting family first’.

A comedy of mid-20th century manners, Ladies in Black is a paean to an optimistic future – the future of an uncomplicated gender equality and seamless multiculturalism. But Finn’s canny lyricism transports the play from its late 50s context to a subtle but salient comment on social issues of today.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Ladies in Black

A Queensland Theatre Company production, presented by Melbourne Theatre Company
Based on Madeleine St John’s novel The Women in Black
Book by Carolyn Burns
Music and Lyrics: Tim Finn
Director and Dramaturg: Simon Phillips
Musical Director: David Young
Choreographer: Andrew Hallsworth
Designer: Gabriela Tylesova
Cast: Sarah Morrison, Carita Farrer Spencer, Greg Stone, Kate Cole, Lucy Maunder, Naomi Price, Deidre Rubenstein, Christen O’Leary, Bobby Fox, Andrew Broadbent, Kate Cole, Kathryn McIntyre

Southbank Theatre
16 January – 27 February

About the author

Sally Hussey is a Melbourne-based writer, curator and independent producer.