Bookended by five tolling bells, this darker-than-average show sets the poetry of Kenneth Slessor to music and brings a near forgotten city – one we usually see frozen in glass plate negatives – to vivid life.
Slessor himself (played by Sean O’Shea) conducts us from the present (realised in field recordings made in the area) and into the Kings Cross and Darlinghurst of the inter-war years.
Waiting for him is Slessor’s pal Joe Lynch (Justin Smith), a newspaper cartoonist and bon vivant.
Slessor, a journalist by day, is in the throes of creating his Darlinghurst Nights poems (published in 1933), drawn-from-life portraits sourced from the streets. Lynch is his wingman and supporter, the bloke who knows where all the parties are, hails the working girls by name, and where the sly grog merchants ply their trade.
From there the show becomes multi-stranded as we follow the fortunes of some of the local folk Slessor captures in verse: recently arrived country girl Mabel (Baylie Carson), and Frank (Andrew Cutcliffe), her beau; a would-be gangster nicknamed Spud (Abe Mitchell) and Cora (Billie Rose Prichard), the lover he pimps when money is tight; and Rose (Natalie Gamsu), the mysterious “woman in the green Rolls-Royce”.
The city conjured in Max Lambert’s jazz-infused score and Katherine Thomson’s book is a place where self-discovery, liberation, sex and opportunity go hand-in-hand with violence, desperation and self-destruction. The bright lights of William Street are just yards away from the depths of Choker’s Lane, where, according to Slessor, “The soft, unhurrying teeth of Death / with leather jaws come tasting men.”
A gloomy world then, but director Lee Lewis’ production (set on wooden pallets by designer Mason Browne) is light on its feet and unerring when it comes to highlighting these characters’ resilience, heart and humour.
Lewis has assembled a cast of fine all-rounders: Carson is charming as the guileless Mabel, her voice rings pure; Prichard is a fiery Cora; Gamsu pilots Rose from the heights of kept-woman hauteur into the torch song-lit realms of despair and madness.
Cutcliffe’s Frank radiates the straightforward, clean-cut vigour of Chesty Bond; Mitchell is suitably edgy as Spud, and Smith excels as the doomed Joe, whose death by drowning (his overcoat laden with bottles of Dinner Ale) spurs O’Shea’s haunted Slessor to create his masterpiece, Five Bells – the chimes of which follow the audience out into the night and onto the very streets he might now, perhaps, struggle to recognise.