More of a two-handed biographical cabaret than a musical, Razorhurst plaits the life stories of pre-WWII Sydney identities Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine into a posthumous face-off in song.
Writer and lyricist Kate Mulley resurrects them in the present day, in what was one of Leigh’s chain of sly grog shops. It’s a derelict now, but about to be turned into an upmarket coffee shop.
Nothing unusual in that, but there’s a twist: Leigh’s old haunt has been bought by Devine’s descendants. Leigh’s hurt pride and Devine’s hubris throws fuel on what was already a comprehensively bitter rivalry that spanned decades and splashed pints of blood on the streets of East Sydney in the “razor wars” of the late 1920s.
After a brief overture (on a pianola playing itself), Devine (Amelia Cormack) opens the show with the jaunty Livin’ in the Good Old Days but she doesn’t have the stage to herself for long.
Enter Leigh (Debora Krizak), who tumbles out of a wardrobe to join her bête noir for The Worst Woman in Sydney.
And who is the worst? For each, it’s the other.
The country-bred Leigh despises Devine for her whoring. Devine, who went from streetwalker to the madame of a brothel empire and who makes no bones about what she had to sell to get there, hates Leigh for her moralising.
Yet despite that, there’s the sense that they are birds of a feather. Both share an ability to make the most of an opportunity (legal loopholes in this case), ruthless determination and the knowledge – hard won – that men are more hindrance than help.
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You can’t put on a show with a title like Razorhurst and not have it sharp. This Australian premiere production, directed by Benita De Wit, maintains a suitably keen edge throughout.
Boxing the show into a room within the room, designer Isabel Hudson opts for a monochromatic look, inspired perhaps by the NSW Police ‘mug shots’ of the period. Costumes are authentically period. Make-up is heavy to the point of garish. Tilly and Kate are cut from a very different cloth to Chicago‘s Velma and Roxie.
The performances are excellent. Cormack pitches Devine as a worn-out showgirl, Krizak’s Leigh is the flinty businesswoman. Vocally, both are in scorching form and when the composer Andy Peterson’s score locks their characters in tight two-part harmony, the effect is powerful.
It makes for a satisfying 90 minutes of song and savagery but Razorhurst feels like the spine of a bigger show, a Chicago of our own that shows us more of Tilly and Kate’s world and their extraordinary place in it.