Two years after Andy Peterson and I decided to set a musical in Kate Leigh’s former sly grog shop at 212 Devonshire Street, Surry Hills, I walked up to what was once its front door.
One of Sydney’s most notorious underworld haunts is now a charming coffee shop called Jazzy.
Director Benita de Wit and I sat down and ordered flat whites before embarking on a tour of East Sydney sites with the cast and creative team of the upcoming Hayes Theatre Company production of Razorhurst.
After researching the world of crime kingpins Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine from New York, it was auspicious to finally see where everything had taken place.
Our tour felt like an invocation of these women, one during which we asked permission to tell their stories on their turf.
I first learned about Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine in January of 2017 when Benita sent a cartoon about them to me and Andy.
A month or so later, we pitched a two-person musical about Kate and Tilly to Cheryl Katz at Luna Stage in New Jersey. There isn’t anyone quite like Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine in American history, and Cheryl was excited to tell their story to the Luna Stage audience.
For our American audiences, Razorhurst would be the first time most audience members had heard of Kate and Tilly. It was important to do these women proud. And it was also a point in time when telling women’s stories – particularly those of women who are strivers and survivors – was becoming more and more important.
The more I immersed myself in research about Sydney in the early 20th century, the more I fell in love with Kate and Tilly: their spirit, savvy and stamina. And I wanted audiences to feel the same way.
Andy and I wanted the Kate and Tilly of Razorhurst to be able to tell the stories of their lives from their own perspectives.
Originally performed as an immersive piece on a set that resembled an upscale coffee shop in a gentrifying Surry Hills (not unlike Jazzy), Razorhurst has evolved since that first production at Luna Stage in February 2018.
Understanding that our Sydney audiences would know more about Kate and Tilly than New Jersey audiences did, we streamlined the exposition and the explanations. We changed the language so that it felt more authentically Australian.
And then we cast two dynamite actresses – Amelia Cormack and Debora Krizak – who are as enthusiastic about telling Australian stories for Australian audiences as we are.
“Not what it used to be. Sydney. East Sydney.”
This is a line Tilly says at the top of the show.
Tilly and Kate were both obsessed with newspaper coverage of themselves during the height of their empires and in Razorhurst, Tilly has been keeping up with her newspaper reading.
She knows about the gentrification of Darlinghurst and Surry Hills and Potts Point. She knows about the lock-out laws and how in many ways they resemble the vice laws put in place in the early 20th century.
She knows there’s a bar named after her just off William Street, so she knows she’s left some kind of legacy behind. And that legacy now includes a new musical in which she gets to joust with her great rival eight times a week.
Kate and Tilly would probably be surprised to learn they became the subjects of a musical.
Kate was born and raised in Dubbo, one of many children raised by her Australian-born Roman Catholic parents.
Tilly was born in South London and arrived in Sydney as a war bride in 1920 after spending her teenage years working as a prostitute.
At a time when women’s roles were changing, they found new opportunities.
They had respect for authority only when it suited them.
They sought financial security by any means.
They were entrepreneurial before it was fashionable.
They had a way with words.
They were stubborn and proud.
They belong to the same Australian folk hero pantheon as Ned Kelly, except their exceptionalism comes from their longevity and their disregard for standard gender roles, not their flash and heroics.
More often than not, when I tell a new acquaintance in Sydney about Razorhurst, they have a personal story about Kate or Tilly.
Last weekend, a woman told me Tilly was her heroine. A man told me his father had painted a portrait of her. And our creative team and cast hear stories about grandparents whose bail was paid by Kate Leigh or relatives who used to represent Tilly in court.
In New Jersey, Razorhurst was a good yarn about women who made something of themselves against all odds.
In Sydney, we’ve been able to reveal new sides of these women to audiences who are already familiar with them. And it’s a joy and an honour to do so.
Razorhurst plays the Hayes Theatre, Potts Point from June 14.