When I was about four years old, I lost my mother in the ‘Ladies Fashion’ section of McDonnell & East. A good deal shorter than the racks of clothing that surrounded me, I was completely disoriented and just about to enter full meltdown mode when a lovely lady with a perfect French roll found me and took me back to her counter. As the call went over the PA system that a mother was sought for the child now in women’s lingerie, she appeased me with banana lollies, and I watched as she served customers and nattered with her coworker. I recall it being quite a traumatic experience overall, but I also recall my mother’s “I didn’t even know I’d lost her” when she came to retrieve me, so clearly the trauma had been entirely mine. With hindsight, I think I actually found it rather thrilling to glimpse what lay beyond the mirrored counters. I certainly remember being fascinated to discover that the enigmatic sales assistants floating from counter to counter in their black frocks and pearls were in fact normal human beings who complained to each other that their feet hurt and, in the case of the lovely lady with the perfect French roll, wanted to be home in time to get the sausages in the oven. Heady stuff, I know, but given I’d always considered department stores to be some kind of fantasy land, the day was quite a revelation to my tiny self.
I hadn’t thought about that old Mac & East building in almost 35 years, but as the curtain rose on Ladies in Black last night, it all came rushing back to me – the creaky wooden escalators, the polished glass cabinets, and the equally polished accents of both shoppers and staff. And as the music swelled, and the cast emerged, I also remembered the sense of transformation that once existed in department stores before discounted white goods and surly checkout operators burst my bubble.
Billed as a coming of age story, Ladies in Black is as much about the maturation of Australian society as it is the growth of the central character. With tongue firmly in cheek, it looks at life in the late 1950s as Australia was losing its naivety amid the arrival of European immigrants; Continental refugees who brought with them new cuisines, new artists and new philosophies on life. Those who resisted social change did so dogmatically, while the more curious developed what was soon to become known as ‘the cultural cringe.’ It was a time of displacement and adjustment for everyone, and from it emerged a generation of young women who saw work and education as a way out of the quagmire.
It seems funny to think it now, but employment in a department store was one of few respectable career options available to women in post-war Australia. Ladies in Black acknowledges this, and treats it with respect. At Goodes, the fictional store in which the play is set, we are introduced to a cast of strong and forthright women who quickly take newest recruit Lesley Miles (Sarah Morrison) under their collective wings as she awaits the results of her high school leaving certificate. Though Ladies in Black is primarily Lesley’s show, it is the intersecting stories of her work colleagues that give it the layers of depth needed to lift it beyond your average metamorphic story. Through the exploits of Hungarian refugee Magda (Christen O’Leary), perennially single Fay (Naomi Price), war widow Miss Jacobs (Deidre Rubenstein) and abandoned wife Patty (Lucy Maunder), we are given glimpses of immigrant life, infertility, loneliness and disgrace – all aspects of the human condition that remain as relevant to Australian life now as they did back then. But it is perhaps the role of Lesley’s mother, played by cabaret diva Carita Farrer Spencer, that is the most touching. Known only as Mrs Miles throughout the play, she is representative of a generation of mothers who watched their daughters become the women they themselves might have been had circumstances been different. Through her eyes we see both her motherly pride and her personal regrets.
Adapted from Madeleine St John’s hugely popular novel, this uniquely Australian musical was in fact brought into being at the urging of New Zealander Tim Finn, who chanced upon a copy of St John’s book in an airport lounge, and saw immediate potential in its pages. Having written a few preliminary songs, he sought the input of husband and wife team Carolyn Burns and Simon Phillips, as script writer and director respectively, and drew on the support of both Queensland and Melbourne Theatre Companies to get the production off the ground. With Finn’s music providing a fresh new take on musical theatre conventions, costuming so sumptuous it brought audible gasps from the audience, and a deceptively simple set design that allows the cast to reveal their characters without distraction, it’s a bit like Are You Being Served? minus the camp, vaudevillian element.
Ladies in Black is witty and appealing, and manages to poke fun at our nation’s foibles while showing genuine affection for the things that make us unique. Though it doesn’t delve too deeply into the racial vilification that existed in Australia at the time, it does broach it in a way that shows it for the ignorant stupidity it was. With contemporary issues regarding racism and patriotism now back in the news with alarming regularity, it is a gentle reminder of how ridiculous such thinking always seems in retrospect.
Do see it.
Ladies in Black
Southbank Theatre, Melbourne
Until 27 February 2016