Sydney poet and journalist Kenneth Slessor lived in or around Kings Cross for 40 years. In a memoir initially published in the Bulletin in 1963, entitled My King’s Cross, he wrote, “Whatever happens to its landscape, King’s Cross will always be a tract apart from the rest of Sydney, still contemptuous of the rules, still defiantly unlike any other city in Australia. And, though its skyline keeps on changing in an unpredictable and bewildering way, its essence of individuality does not change, its flavour, noises sights and smells remain the same immutably.”
Slessor wrote a significant amount of poetry about Kings Cross and the surrounding areas, most of which he penned in the 1920s and 30s. One particular collection of verse, Darlinghurst Nights, was written in 1933. It’s the name given to the musical created around Slessor’s poetry by Sydney playwright, Katherine Thomson, whose play Diving for Pearls was recently revived by Griffin Theatre Company to great acclaim. Max Lambert (whose musical Miracle City is also enjoying a successful revival) is the composer of Darlinghurst Nights’ score.
Thirty years after Darlinghurst Nights was first staged by the Sydney Theatre Company, Hayes Theatre Co has a brand new production playing in the heart of the area that inspired Slessor’s original works. Directing this latest outing is the Helpmann Award-winning artistic director of Griffin Theatre Company, Lee Lewis.
Darlinghurst Nights takes characters from Slessor’s work and unites them in a celebration of what Kings Cross represented in what he saw as its heyday. It’s a story of a precinct that beckoned bohemians and where authentic living was admired; where the eccentric and vociferous could flourish. It’s also a precinct that was a magnet for criminal activity.
Leading the audience through the story is ‘Ken’ (Sean O’Shea), who yearns for the Kings Cross of a bygone era and its lively inhabitants. He reminisces about his late friend Joe Lynch (Justin Smith), a political cartoonist who fell drunk from a ferry and drowned in Sydney Harbour in 1927 (this was the catalyst for Slessor’s highly regarded ‘Five Bells’). As he continues to ruminate, other figures from the era begin to crystallise in his mind, and we get glimpses into each of their lives.
Three women are central to the story: Mabel (Baylie Carson), a wide-eyed country girl who’s recently arrived in Kings Cross; Cora (Billie Rose Prichard), a brusque sex worker; and Rose (Natalie Gamsu), an affluent woman with a green Rolls Royce. Each woman seeks to be able to lead the blithe existence that life in the Cross seems to promise, but each is faced with a set of circumstances that inhibit their ability to do so.
Darlinghurst Nights is a fine reminder of the colour in the history of Sydney, and the people who made precincts like Kings Cross exciting and interesting. It’s also a reminder that vibrancy and eclecticism are qualities we need to embrace today.
Lewis has crafted an intelligent production that affords Thomson’s wonderful text (which incorporates Slessor’s poetry) the treatment it deserves. It’s at once hugely evocative of the time and place, conjuring vivid images of the era, but it also feels fresh and current. There is great fluidity from start to finish, with consistently seamless movement from the spoken word to song.
The cast is without a weak link. O’Shea brings gravitas to his portrayal of Ken, lamenting the loss of ‘his Kings Cross'; Smith is excellent and shows palpable emotion as Lynch; Andrew Cutcliffe’s ice man, Frank, whose livelihood is threatened by the rollout of refrigerators, is convincingly affable and uncomplicated; and Abe Mitchell’s Spud, Cora’s rapacious husband, seems the embodiment of small-time criminals of the day.
The women of this production are a tremendous trio. Carson is highly engaging in depicting the seemingly innocuous country girl who eschews a well-travelled path to absorb bohemia; Prichard’s Cora is abrasive but compels pathos as we come to understand her plight; and Gamsu is alluring – and in fine voice – as the mysterious Rose.
Mason Browne’s simple set, comprising a series of wooden pallets, works surprisingly well as the backdrop for all of the action, while Trent Suidgeest’s superb lighting choices make a real impact. Musical director Lambert and musician Roger Lock are, between them, entirely responsible for a beautiful live reproduction of the score.
It’s a treat to see a rarely-performed home-grown musical bought back to life in the area that provided its inspiration. Better still is the fact that, under Lewis’ direction, Darlinghurst Nights remains a wonderful piece of musical theatre that possesses its own joie de vivre.
DARLINGHURST NIGHTS – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point)
Dates: Playing now until 3 February, 2018
Times: Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30pm, Mondays at 6:30pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm (NB no performance on January 26)
Tickets: Monday to Thursday evenings – Adults $65 Concession $60 ; Friday and Saturday evenings – $69; Saturday Matinee – Adults $65 Concession $60; Wednesday Matinee – Adults $60 Concession $55
Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or phone 02 8065 7337