I'm a children's book author, radio presenter of 'By the Book' for Radio Northern Beaches, and freelance writer. Check out www.brydiewright.com for more about
Literary Classic Takes Centre Stage
Not to be confused with The Woman in Black, a gothic horror story adapted to film and theatre, The Women in Black, is a classic 1993 Australian novel, emerging from the literary shadows, and taking centre stage in 2017.
Madeleine St John's short novel first appeared on my radar via a text from my parents one night: - 'We're at Lyric Theatre. Interval for Ladies in Black. What a hoot!'
Cover image from Text Publishing's 2009 paperback edition of The Women in Black
The next day I got the full rundown on the aforementioned, Ladies in Black, Tim Finn and Carolyn Burns' hilarious new musical adaptation of The Women in Black. Most notable was my parents' appreciation of the surprisingly straight-talking song, He's a Bastard about working-class Aussie males in the late 1950s.
Still a bit bemused by it all, I remembered I had been intrigued by a news piece on Tim Finn's new foray into musical theatre. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when gifted with a ticket to the show in its final days at The Lyric Theatre, joining a friend who had read (and loved) the book. Naturally, she had some trepidation. Would the stage adaptation live up to the book and how would the scenes translate to a musical format? By the uplifting climax of the show, my friend couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised.
As soon as I saw the show, I ordered the book online, keen to connect with this literary gem. I was coming from the opposite perspective to my friend. I would be comparing the book to the adaptation and hoping it wouldn't fall short. Ladies in Black, the hit new Aussie musical, would be very hard to beat.
A Queensland Theatre Production's publicity image for Ladies in Black
The novel offers a humorous portrayal of a homogenous, working to middle-class Sydney, at the end of the 1950s. A time when women would dress smartly and maybe take a job in retail but would eventually settle down to become wives and mothers. If you weren't Australian-born, you were a 'Continental', and you were probably just as bewildered by the Aussies as they were you. Upon this social canvas, appears the luxuriant F.G. Goodes department store and young sales assistant Lisa. Her intelligence and hunger for life, find her aspiring to more than is usually thought appropriate for a young women.
The book is an excellent read. Light-hearted and fun, with well-drawn and recognisable characterisations from the era depicted by St John. It's a page-turner and will probably resonate best with Sydneysiders and females, though its clever storytelling and lightly satirical take on mid-century Australian views, should appeal to a wider audience
This is one of those rare occasions, however, when the adaptation surpasses the original.
The novel conveys the sense that its characters are just crossing paths as they carry out their work in the Christmas and New Year rush at F.G. Goodes. With the stage show, there is a closer camaraderie between the ladies in black, and their stories intertwine. The ending aligns several tangents and Lisa and her colleagues seem to have generated a close bond.
A Queensland Theatre Production's publicity image shows the glorious colour of Ladies in Black
Finn and Burns' script and lyrics heighten the comedic scope in St. John's story and the colour and grandeur enabled by theatre staging, lighting and orchestra, do justice to the glamour of the department store. The audience is left dazzled in a way that is not manifested for the reader, by the book.
The most glorious aspect of the stage show, is the casting and characterisation of the characters who steal the show, both in the book and in the musical :- the larger than life 'Continentals', Magda, Stefan and Rudi. In a female-dominated story, the arrival of the character of Rudi, the suave, Hungarian thirty-something looking for an Aussie wife, takes the show up a notch, magnificently played by the charismatic Bobby Fox.
It is Magda, Stefan and Rudi's over the top European sophistication as they arrive at the beach on Christmas Day, that provides arguably the funniest moment in the show. It endears the audience with a scene that was not particularly memorable in the book.
Is it ever fair though to compare two mediums? I heartily recommend you put both the book and the stage show high on your list. The novel is a modern classic and the musical is being touted as the best Australian musical since Priscilla.
So, with its Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne runs now at an end, do yourself an immense favour and check your local listings. Ladies in Black will be showing in Canberra from 27 March – 2 April.