Ladies in Black, by Carolyn Burns | Music and lyrics by Tim Finn | Directed by Simon Phillips

Melbourne Theatre Company & Queensland Theatre Company | Sydney Lyric (http://www.sydneylyric.com.au), Star City, Sydney | Until 22 January

“While the quality and quantity of the food available from the camp kitchen was satisfactory it was also monotonous, with much the same dishes every day. Hence when I was in the Cowra Western Stores delicatessen and saw sausage that looked like the ‘tea sausage’ we had in Europe, I bought a big chunk of it.

“What a disappointment! It was nothing like that. We could hardly swallow it. You had to put a lot of tomato sauce on it to make it edible. The whole delicatessen business was based on devon and garlic sausage and mild cheese! They had the best basic products — beef, lamb, fruit and vegetables— but lacked the knowledge or desire to make something tasty with them.”

The words come from my late father’s notes on arriving and settling in Australia in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and memories of his stories of life ‘in the early days’ came flooding back as I watched Ladies in Black, the excellent new musical at Sydney’s Star City.

Ladies in Black is set in the late 1950s, mainly in FG Goodes, a fictional upmarket Sydney department store (based, I gather, largely on David Jones) though it also wanders into the homes of its protagonists, the very bright, charming, but completely innocent school leaver Lisa (Sarah Morrison) and the mysterious, highly cultured Magda (Natalie Gamsu), a ‘Continental’ who runs the store’s exclusive imported gowns section.

Lisa and Magda respectively represent the musical’s two main themes — the routine suppression of women into subservient roles, and the absolute mistrust in which ‘Australians’ held the recent arrivals from war-ravaged Europe.

Lisa has just completed the High School Leaving Certificate — almost unheard of in those days of girls normally finishing at the end of what is now Year 9 and working menial secretarial jobs while preparing themselves for marriage and the associated mundane domestic duties.

She has just landed a holiday job in Goodes, while she tries to persuade her parents Mr Miles (Greg Stone) and Mrs Miles (Carita Farrer Spencer) that she should be able to go to university — heaven forbid.

There, she’s taken under Magda’s wing and introduced to a new world in that ‘Continental’ hot bed called Mosman, a world inhabited by the likes of Magda’s husband Stefan (also played by Greg Stone) and a family friend Rudi (Bobby Fox).

Ladies in Black is, of course, feel-good stuff and you know that things will work out well for everyone, including those in a couple of well devised sub-plots.

The music and songs are excellent, as they should be given the input of Tim Finn. I especially liked He’s a Bastard, sung with such great gusto by the chorus line of black-clad sales ladies, and the slightly wicked I Just Kissed a Continental, subversively performed by Fay (Naomi Price) after submitting to Rudi’s charms.

All the performances and voices are strong, but I’m going to single out Bobby Fox, who I first came across playing Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys. Wow, is all I need venture.

And one more thing. Congratulations to director Simon Phillips and whoever else occupied the casting couch for selecting an array of performers who so beautifully celebrate the sexiness of a complete range of female body shapes. Let’s see much, much more of it.

All images: Lisa Tomasetti

Madeleine Jones and Tamlyn Henderson.

Sarah Morrison.

Greg Stone, Natalie Gamsu, Sarah Morrison and Bobby Fox.