Written and Directed by Liviu Monsted
Reviewed by Justin Clarke
St. James Church, Sydney
September 8 – October 1st
Let’s paint the picture.
It’s a rather bitter Spring night in Sydney’s CBD. A small gathering of nervously excited patrons are gathered outside the ghostly silhouette of St James’ Church. Situated around wooden doors, dimly lit lanterns adorning either side, there are whispers of how the journey of Deadhouse will begin. We know it’s interactive, but we don’t know how we will experience theatre beneath one of Sydney’s most-visited churches. The small crowd falls silent, there is a hush and from behind a seemingly floating lantern appears. Out of the shadows, Kyla Ward’s Peg Fisher emerges. Dressed in all black, pale, and ghostly white, she announces herself as our guide for what will be a journey through one of Sydney’s most bloody underground wars, fought not with guns, but with a razor.
Sydney has always had its fair share of gruesome tales, brought to light most famously in the hit TV anthology series Underbelly. On this night, we were taken on a journey through The Razor Gang Wars: The Rise of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh.
Set a decade after the Great War, the Sydney police force has been decimated due to the loss of life. It was a perfect opportunity for gang warfare to take over the underbelly of Sydney’s crime world, and Tilly Devine (Alexandra Smith) and Kate Leigh (Deirdre Campbell) were smack bang in the centre of that world. Amidst all the bloodshed taking place in Darlinghurst – which earned the title Razorhurst – a heroic figure in the shape of Lillian Armfield (Donna Randall) comes to the forefront. Given leadership over the female sector of the police, she befriends sex worker Nellie Cameron (Wendi Lanham) and ultimately uses all her persistence and strength to take down the Snow Queen Kate Leigh, and the Queen of the Bordello Tilly Devine.
The team at Actors Anonymous and Blancmange Productions took our audience through the crypts of St. James’ Church acting out the story around us, making us feel like ghosts surveying history. Entering the crypts, we began in the cramped office space of police Inspector-General Mitchell (Leofric Kingsford-Smith) and provided exposition that would set up the relationships and conflict of the story.
Moving on from here, the journey took us through the narrow halls of the crypts with pale blood-red hues streaming over the archways of the passages, adding to the overall atmosphere (Mehran Mortezaei). The sound effects of gunshots and sirens did not have the impact it could have had in this space, failing to really take hold of the gripping tale. Despite the team’s best efforts to utilise the narrow-curved hallways, there were times when being so cramped blocked the field of view from some scenes.
Direction by Liviu Monsted shows a control and understanding of interactive theatre to bring the story out of the history books and into the crypt. Monsted utilises his cast well and allows for the intimate setting to extract humour, violence, and power with a particular focus on the females at the centre of it all. Every single performer commits to their parts, showing the emotional highs of gang warfare, creating visceral tension in fight sequences, and ultimately leading us through a true part of Sydney’s history.
Monsted, who also writes this story, places female empowerment at the centre. Devine, Leigh and Armfield become women who wanted to stamp their mark in the brutal world of men, be it the underbelly or the police force. Where the script falls down is giving the story an impactful ending. We’re left with a sense of wanting more closure, and the end of Devine and Leigh’s empire doesn’t quite match the highs felt in earlier sequences.
If the audience on this evening’s performance is anything to go by, then Deadhouse is a winner. There were gasps, laughs and jeers from audience members at the venom spat at the men from Devine and Leigh as we were given a closer lens through which to explore this gruesome part of history. In what is definitely, a unique evening, this is one for those wanting something new and who are eager to explore the underbelly of Sydney up close and personal.
RAZOR GANG WARS CAST
Deirdre Campbell – Kate Leigh
Christopher Daw – Detective Miller / Jim Taylor / Fred Miller/ Greg ‘The Gunman’ Gaffney / Cop 2
Shaun Foley – Norman Twiss /Tom Wickham / Phil Jeffs
Barret Griffin – Shiner Ryan / Sid McDonald / Man 3
Lucy Hadfield – Eileen Leigh
Leofric Kingsford Smith – Inspector-General Mitchell
Wendi Lanham – Nellie Cameron
Steve Maresca – Norman Bruhn / Frank ‘The Little Gunman’ Green / Bruce Higgs / Man 2
Chris Miller – Big Jim Devine / Samuel Freeman / Man 1
Donna Randall – Lillian Armfield
Alexandra Smith – Tilly Devine
Kyla Ward – Peg Fisher (guide) / Cop 1
Lisa Hanssens – female swing
Liviu Monsted – male swing
CREATIVES & CREW
Executive Producer: Stephen Carnell
Producer: Michael Dengler
Writer: Liviu Monsted
Director: Liviu Monsted
Marketing: Stephen Carnell
Production Design: Irma Calabrese
Props & Set: Lew McDonnell
Lighting & Sound Designer: Mehran Mortezaei
Costume Designer: Andrea Tan
Lighting Operator: Amber Spooner
Assistant Stage Manager: Angie Gachomo
Stage Manager: Aaron Smith
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