By Rosie Niven
Sydney is the birthplace of organised crime in Australia, the illegal sector of the city’s economy rising after World War I to take over the streets of Kings Cross and Darlinghurst. So what better place to stage Kate Mulley’s Razorhurst, a bold new musical about the leaders of the 1920s and 30s Darlinghurst underworld, Kate Leigh (Debora Krizak) and Tilly Devine (Amelia Cormack), than the Hayes. Inspired by the renovation of Kate’s sly grog shop into a trendy coffee spot earlier this year, the show explores the famous feud between these two underworld rivals, and suggests there are still truths to be told and scores to settle.
Amongst works such as Underbelly and Animal Kingdom, it is refreshing to see a show that tells the story of the Sydney underworld from a uniquely female perspective. Although both Leigh and Devine discuss their relationships with men, and how the wrongdoings of men in their lives significantly impact them, they both choose to start businesses on their own. These savvy women saw legal loopholes and gaps in the market, and they immediately rose to fill them. While the perspective seemed to be negatively swayed towards sex workers of the time (an attitude which felt unnecessary given Devine’s empire of brothels that changed the way women engaged with sex work), much of this story was empowering to watch, and felt an important story to be sharing with a modern audience.
Both Amelia Cormack and Debora Krizak (supported by Musical Director Lucy Bermingham) are to be commended for their commitment to the roles as well as having the stamina to carry a 90-minute 2-hander show with no interval and multiple characters. An unenviable feat, but one that successfully displays the talent of all involved. Cormack and Krizak did well at affecting the 1930s timbre, and while early songs in the show did not showcase the vocal talent these two performers possess, later songs such as ‘The Fight Hurt Me’ highlighted exactly why they had been cast. I only wish that both performers had greater opportunity to display that talent before the show ended.
Isabel Hudon’s thoughtful set reminds us why she is constantly employed around Sydney. The set was reminiscent of an abandoned shop all the way down to the tiniest details: when Kate Leigh jumped on the floorboards, small clouds of dust rose from the gaps as if the space had witnessed no life since Kate’s ownership. The neon strips at the back of the set flashing white and red evoked the iconic Coca Cola sign of Kings Cross, and an earlier era of financial boom and economic prosperity - the perfect backdrop for a criminal underworld to arise. This well-chosen location for the production brings some geographical relevance and authenticity to this very true story. The creative lighting choices by Benjamin Brockman were a highlight of the show: Brockman knew exactly when to utilise spectacle and panache and when a more understated approach was required. Paired with Tegan Nicholl’s colourful sound design, all design elements came together to elevate both characters to a grandiose scale and gave us two larger than life women that had a profound impact on the history of Darlinghurst.
With a more interactive audience, the comedic moments in this show would have shined, however with a less receptive audience as the actors were faced with on the night I was there, many of these moments fell flat. In spite of this, there were some incredibly fun points throughout the performance: the self-playing piano that opened the show, the ghost of Kate Leigh appearing from a cupboard, and the constant jostling for audience attention from both women. All of these kept the performance more lively than these two long-dead women, and one audience member was even encouraged to chug some of Kate’s famous grog.
Razorhurst is a brave new work that has an important place in the Australian theatre scene, and manages a feat of recreating decades of Australian crime history in just 90 minutes. Although I left the theatre feeling something was missing from this production, I commend Director Benita De Wit on giving a voice to the underdog, and celebrating the female lawbreakers and business makers that made Sydney what it is today.
Photo Credit: John Mcrae
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.