Review By Laura Heuston
If you’re a fan of true crime, indomitable women, and creeping through the bowels of a church at night… then this is the show for you. Almost 100 years ago, the gang legends Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine were responsible for countless bodies that traveled through the St James Crypt. Razor blades were the weapon of choice (given the law against unregistered firearms), and the city was so bloody that Darlinghurst was “fondly” referred to as Razorhurst. And amongst it all, the first policewoman in Australia- Lillian Armfield- was attempting to help women who were being forced into addiction and subsequent sex work. Not to mention keep the city cocaine free. Writer and director Liviu Monsted has managed to pack about 5 years of vicious history into an hour of theatre and the best part is, it all takes place in the St James Crypt!
Starting in the Western Courtyard, we journey through the years of the Razor Wars and through the hallways of the Crypt; delving deeper into the depths of St James as the story itself deepens and darkens. Kyla Ward leads the immersive experience as our haunting guide, narrating much of the historical context while establishing the mood of traveling back to a violent past. This is a tough balance to maintain, but Ward’s energy keeps the audience enthralled from start to finish.
Kate Leigh (Deirdre Campbell) is the first of the crime queens to emerge, an image of toughness that can only come from a childhood of hardship and abuse. She has been betrayed, and she will not allow herself to ever be vulnerable again. Her greatest love however, may not be money, cocaine, or power, but her daughter Eileen (Lucy Hadfield), who has taken on her mother’s propensity for vice. Together they present an unique image of intergenerational trauma that puts the women in a position of power. Contrasting them is Wendi Lanham playing Nellie Cameron- Sydney’s most glamorous sex worker. Beautiful, brash, and truly in love with a life of crime, Lanham presents us with a brilliantly seductive but deeply tragic Cameron. And finally, lurking deep within the crypt and being spoken of in hushed tones for the first Act, is Alexandra Smith as Tilly Devine. Stunning, bloody, and furious at the mere thought of defiance; Smith cuts a small figure but looms incredibly large in the cast. Devine is perhaps the only character who is truly unhinged, and as such presents the ultimate allure for the true crime fan.
The soul of the story however, needs to be Lillian Armfield, played by Donna Randall. She is the moral heart of both the critique of sexism in the police force and the representation of a woman who can succeed within the system. The three other female leads- Tilly, Kate and Nellie- have all chosen to operate outside of the law, but Lillian has forged her path inside. And there can be no question that she has suffered for it. But the question that does remain is, how do we break the cycle? Lillian has seen how organized crime abhors a vacuum, and how the police seem unable to prevent such vacuums from immediately being filled and the wars continuing. However as a woman who has dedicated herself to a system that cannot seem to solve the problem, she cannot see beyond it. She is a woman of strength, kindness, foresight and great generosity, but she knows that this is not enough to banish the Tilly’s and the Kate’s of the world. The play concludes with a sense of tragic victory.
The challenge of this work is fitting 5 years of dramatic history into a 75 minute show. And of course, this piece needs to allow time for the audience to travel between the various areas of the Crypt. Writer/director Monsted has done an admirable job of choosing which stories to dramatize, however the various stages seem mean that we do not get to see a lot of development between characters. And as there is no time to really explore the complex relationship between the warring crime queens, the show has no option but to be quite traditionally pro-police. It makes sense to structurally focus the narrative on Armfield and her relationship with Cameron, especially given the time constraints, however one does emerge feeling we didn’t get very much time with the legends themselves (Leigh and Devine).
Razor Gang Wars is a terrifically creepy night of entertainment, exploring true Australian crime stories in an utterly brilliant location. The script may cover some dark material, but there is much levity throughout. I recommend you wear comfortable shoes as there is a bit of standing and walking involved, and that you make time to see the show while it is on!