It’s been a few years since Deadhouse: Tales of Sydney Morgue dove into the underground history of Sydney’s streets but this third season turns its focus on the infamous and iconic duo of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. But while Tilly and Kate were making names for themselves as famous female criminals, there were women on the other side of the law taking advantage of their own opportunities.
Where Blancmange Productions’s Razorhurst Walking Tour whets the whistle about the real life locations in Darlinghurst where the Razor Wars took place, this season of Deadhouse brings the audience into the action with immersive recreations of the real characters involved. Rather than focusing entirely on Tilly (Alexandra Smith) and Kate (Deirdre Campbell) as they rose to power in the underworld, Razor Gang Wars also provides insight into the introduction of women to the Sydney police force as an attempt to dissuade young and desperate women away from the clutches of Tilly and Kate. The success of this operation and the women involved paved the way for equal employment of women in the police force.
The action began midway through the reign of Kate and Tilly, when Nellie Cameron (Wendi Lanham) was notorious on the streets for her valuable services and her nickname “the Kiss of Death Girl”. Recently appointed detective Lillian Armfield (Donna Randall) took a liking to Nellie and frequently tried to steer her into a more straight-edge life but it took a few shot boyfriends, Norman Bruhn and Frank Green (both Steven Maresca), and multiple raids on the Devines and Leighs before Armfield could really crack into the underworld crime scene. After years of street skirmishes, deaths, and failed arrests, the story came to an end with the arrest of Nellie and Kate during a string of police raids in the early 1930s.
The setting of the production in the crypt underneath St James’ Church added the appropriate ambiance of echoing screams and running footsteps through the tunnels, which brought to life the urgency and danger of the many violent confrontations between rival gangs and police featured in the history. A few muted gunshots dulled the thrill but the actors performed with a lively energy and commitment. The script by Liviu Monsted structured the production as a series of vignettes through which the audience were guided by Kyla Ward as a liaison between the past and present. This allowed the story to jump easily through time and space to demonstrate the chain of events that lead to Lillian Armfield’s success and Tilly, Kate, and Nellie’s eventual demise.
Unsurprisingly for a story about remarkable women, the women performers were stand-outs for their passionate and fiery portrayals of their characters. Lanham’s Nellie was wily and provocative, a sharp contrast to the steady and sincere characterisation of Detective Armfield by Randall. Her delivery and attempts at emotional persuasion were particularly compelling amongst the yelling and violence of the story. Smith and Campbell as Tilly and Kate were recognisable for their duality of restrained v wild, polite v plucky but they equally commanded attention from their columnar positions. Other characters who gave briefer appearances like Inspector-General Mitchell (Leofric Kingsford-Smith) who hired Lillian Armfield, Jim Devine (Chris Miller), and the various men around which Tilly and Kate paraded including Norman Bruhn, Frank Green, and gang members Sid Ryan (Barrett Griffin) and Phil Jeffs (Shaun Foley) added necessary colour to the scenes with talk of their illegal activities, threats of violence, and by frequently stumbling into the room with a bleeding wound.
The complicated history of Sydney and the many eras of crimes since colonisation upon which the city is built are rich fields for dramatic exploration, especially amongst the recent popularity of true crime stories. For a condensed but lively engagement with Sydney’s past, Deadhouse Season 3 offers to take you into the heart of the history, putting you right in the line of fire of a story you won’t soon forget.
Razor Gang Wars: The Rise of Tilly Devine & Kate Leigh in running in the Crypt beneath St James Cathedral from September 1st – October 1st
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