The story of the Sydney underworld of the 1920s and 30s is packed with a cast of larger-than-life characters and defined by a series of dramatic episodes that make it ideal for musical theatre treatment. It was a time when laws that prohibited prostitution and drinking in pubs after 6pm, and a healthy illicit drug trade, fostered the growth of a dark underbelly. The violent ‘Razor’ Gangs (called that because of their use of cut-throat razors) fought for supremacy in that criminal world. Darlinghurst, at the centre of events, earned itself the nickname ‘Razorhurst’.
Leading the Razor Gang wars were two now-iconic figures – Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. Devine, the ‘Queen of Woolloomooloo’, owned a slew of brothels and racked up 204 criminal convictions. Her rival, Leigh, the ‘Queen of Surry Hills’, sold sly grog and cocaine and found herself in prison on 13 separate occasions. Both Devine and Leigh were fierce women whose criminal empires made them powerful entities in Sydney. Their reign oversaw a Sydney which resulted in many losing their lives or going to jail. It’s the kind of story we tend to associate with Chicago at roughly the same time in history and it was the subject of Channel Nine’s 2011 Underbelly: Razor series.
Razorhurst focuses squarely on Devine’s and Leigh’s time as queens of the Sydney underworld. With music by Andy Peterson and book and lyrics by Kate Mulley, the show had its world premiere at Luna Stage in New Jersey. Since then, it’s been significantly developed and is now having its Australian premiere at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co. Benita de Wit, a New York-based Australian director, is leading the Sydney engagement.
As the show opens, we learn that what was once a sly grog shop owned by Leigh (Debora Krizak) is about to re-open as an upmarket café. Not only that, but the current owners of this establishment are descendants of Devine (Amelia Cormack). The ghosts of the two women then take us back to their heyday, regaling with stories of life in East Sydney at a time when it was rife with crime. We learn of Leigh’s beginnings in country New South Wales; we’re told how Devine, originally from Camberwell in London, met an Australian sailor while working as a prostitute, marrying him and coming to live in Sydney; and we also get a brief insight into Lillian Armfield, Australia’s first female detective, and prominent opponent of the Razor Gang leaders. There are also references to Leigh’s philanthropy during the tough times pre and post-depression.
This is a fascinating story and it’s terrific to have the opportunity to learn about this chapter in Sydney’s history in the heart of the suburbs where many of the events in question occurred. Both Cormack and Krizak are ideally cast as the warring underworld figures. Cormack’s Devine is imperious and wily, while Krizak’s Leigh is coarse and similarly entrepreneurial, but sees herself as apart from Devine because she never became a prostitute. Both are vocally impressive and they sing wonderfully together.
Isabel Hudson’s set sees the story play out in the dilapidated but ‘under construction’ store interior and, together with Benjamin Brockman’s lighting, conjures a sense of an historic building bursting with stories of the rich chapters to which it has borne witness. The costumes and makeup are excellent, effective in bringing Devine and Leigh to life as of today, but also suggesting to us what they were and what they became – this is not their heyday.
With a running time of approximately 90 minutes, Razorhurst’s score is performed entirely by musical director Lucy Bermingham on piano. On the whole, it’s not a particularly memorable or potent score, but there are certainly catchy moments (the refrain for ‘The Worst Woman in Sydney’ will likely get stuck in your head). And while choreography is, for the most part, aptly kept to a minimum, there is some movement that looks too much in the context of this two-hander.
There is an argument to be made that this big story would be better served by a bigger production. Not bigger necessarily in terms of venue, but bigger in that it includes staging of critical moments in the Razor Gang chapter that are currently merely referred to in its text; bigger in its depiction of the high stakes for Devine and Leigh and in conveying the carnage of the time; and maybe even bigger in its sound.
That said, Razorhurst in its current form is highly entertaining and superbly performed. It also succeeds in fuelling interest in learning about the gangs that once ruled the streets of East Sydney and the intriguing women who, through their unique status, were deeply part of the fabric of the inner Sydney of the early 20th century and who’ve earned an important place in the city’s history.
RAZORHURST – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Season: Playing now until 13 July 2019
Times: Mon 6.30pm| Tues- Sat 7.30pm | Wed 1.00pm | Sat 2pm
Price: From $45
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337