Darlinghurst Nights

Darlinghurst Nights
Book by Katherine Thomson. Music by Max Lambert. Based on the book Darlinghurst Nights by Kenneth Slessor and an original concept by Andrew James. Directed by Lee Lewis. Musical Director Max Lambert. Hayes Theatre Co. Jan 4 to Feb 3, 2018.

This musical gem beautifully evokes the ghosts of those who once walked the streets of Darlinghurst and Kings Cross just outside the Hayes Theatre itself.  Drawing on Kenneth Slessor’s collection of poems from the 1920-30’s, it’s also another welcome time travel –  reviving as it does an Australian musical successfully premiered 30 years ago.

We’re reminded again about the power onstage of our own Australian voices, the locals which came before us and familiar places which made us both.

As Kings Cross today goes through another gentrified cleansing, Darlinghurst Nights is about it’s bohemian beginnings, as a retreat for the poor, the artistic and eccentric, and the crims.

Kath Thomson skilfully presents a kaleidoscope of these stories and songs, in short, interconnected snippets, as though introduced by Slessor, the observant local poet (Sean O’Shea).

We meet the spirited young Mabel (Baylie Carson) just arrived from the country; Cora (Billie Rose Pritchard), struggling to stay off the game and the drugs; and Rose (Natalie Gamsu) an aging flapper about to lose her sugar daddy and green Rolls Royce  – all women trying to find independence.

Spud (Abe Mitchell) is Cora’s small crim, bullying husband and Frank (Andrew Cutliffe), a friend of Mabel’s, is an iceman losing his trade to the arrival of the Kelvinators. 

Reaching across these stories, as a foil for Slessor, is his Irish mate, the affable, often drunken, depressive cartoonist Joe (a fine Justin Smith). Joe’s haunting real-life disappearance, off the back of a Sydney ferry in 1927, inspired Slessor’s famous poem Five Bells.

Composer Max Lambert creates a cacophony of musical styles to match this dramatic jigsaw, a score arcing through jazz, Broadway melodies, hymns and touches of Sondheim and Weill.   And all from just Lambert up the back on piano with musician Roger Lock.  

Thomson’s lyrics, drawing on Slessor’s often dark poetry, are more philosophical than character-driven – adding a soulful depth to Darlinghurst Nights but also the challenge to fully enunciate them.   But the cast is first rate. And Thomson artfully weaves between such lyricism and the realistic street talk of her characters, while John O’Connell’s compelling choreography has a big show impact.

Yet it’s all squeezed onto a simple laneway set of packing pallets (designer Mason Browne), colourfully lit by Trent Suidgeest and drenched in local street sounds.

Directing her first musical, Lee Lewis from Griffin Theatre down the road, orchestrates magic from her talented ensemble … disproving Joe’s unhappy claim that Australia was never a place for dreamers.

Martin Portus

Photographer: Brett Boardman

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