Wednesday, 10 February 2016

50s Frocks on Stage - Ladies In Black

Last week my partner and I gritted out teeth and fronted up to the first play of the Melbourne Theatre Company's 2016 season, Ladies In Black. Why gritting our teeth, I hear you ask. Because we both dislike musicals, especially my partner. Then, why were we going, I hear you asking again. Because this show is set in the dress section of a department store in the 1950s. How could I not go? It was bound to be a frock fiesta. Would they go vintage or costume? Yes, we had to go for the frocks. Geoff was very gracious and promised not to complain, although he reserved the right to sleep.

 Ladies In Black is based on a novel "The Women in Black", by Madeleine St John. Director Simon Phillips has brought Carolyn Burns' play and kiwi Tim Finn's (Split Enz) music and lyrics alive for Melbourne audiences. It is a quintessentially Australian play. Finn and Burns did an excellent job of capturing the Australian idiom, and they certainly appealed to the Australian sense of humour.

As our seats were very close to the front, you'll be relieved to hear that Geoff neither snored nor slept. In fact, I think he quite enjoyed the show "for a musical". I enjoyed it very much. The performances were all excellent, and every single cast member could really sing.

Opening scene

The story follows 16 year old Lesley on her first holiday job after completing high school. The first thing she does is tell everyone at work that her name is Lisa, because she wants "a girl's name". As someone whose middle name is Lesley, I wholeheartedly agree with her. There are lots of funny, witty lines in this show - in both the dialogue and the song lyrics.

Christen O'Leary as Magda

So what about the frocks? The store scenes are either in the cocktail dress department, where Lisa (Sarah Morrison) works with Faye (Naomi Price) and Patty (Lucy Maunder), or in "Model gowns", the couture dress department, with sophisticated continental Magda (Christen O'Leary). Young Lisa falls in love with one of the couture dresses, coincidentally named "Lisette".

Lisa (Sarah Morrison) and Magda (Christen O'Leary) admiring Lisette.

I did enjoy looking at the frocks, and I greedily eyed the rack of vintage cocktail gowns on the set, which I guessed were authentic vintage gowns. Surely they wouldn't pay for elaborate costumes just to form the setting. I'm guessing that most of the gowns worn by the cast would have been costumes made for the play, certainly the matched colour numbers with hats in the opening scene were.

My favourite garment in the play was not one of the couture gowns or cocktail frocks, but an amazing red and white halter neck swimsuit worn by Magda in one scene, sadly no photos. I also liked the ordinary cotton house dresses worn in the home scenes, they were probably vintage too. None of the "model gowns" thrilled me.

And Rudi could really dance (Christen O'Leary and Bobby Fox)

Tim Finn's debut performance as a musical playwright is a very successful one. And the band were fabulous.

The highlight of the play for us was a song called "He's a bastard", performed by Patty (Lucy Maunder) with her mother and sisters, after her husband leaves her. How many words can you rhyme with bastard? (Remember, this is Australia. It's "Barsted", not "Bassted"). Try, in familial sequence, "He's always getting plastered" (extremely drunk, for our international readers), "He couldn't cut the mustard", "He simply can't be trusted", and on and on. Very funny.

Magda (Christen O'Leary) and Lisa (Sarah Morrison) with a Model Gown.
So, I whispered to Geoff, "nope, not vintage", "nope, not vintage", "hmmm...maybe vintage", or "probably vintage". "How can you tell?" he asked. "Zip in the back, costume." I whispered. He looked at me quizzically. Yes, I was prepared to admit later, they may have been vintage if it was set after 1957. Before then, zips were in the side. "Why?" he wanted to know. I explained that a costume needed to be got into and out of very quickly and a zip in the back is much better for this. Have you ever worn a fitted dress with a zip in the side? It goes over your head and then it's a slow progress towards your feet as you wiggle, wiggle, wiggle. So why were they ever in the side in the first place, Geoff wanted to know. Because it looks better, I replied, fabulous at the front and fabulous at the back, closure hidden in the side. He looked at me in disgust, only women, he thought, would suffer inconvenience and discomfort to look good.

Ladies in Black is highly entertaining. It's on stage at the Sumner Theatre in Melbourne until 27th February.

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