Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney
January 9, 2018
Though comparatively little known today, the Australian musical Darlinghurst Nights was a huge hit when Sydney Theatre Company premiered it in 1988 – and this 30th anniversary revival at the Hayes Theatre Co shows you why. It’s a beautiful little gem of a show with a distinctively Australian voice.
Inspired by the work of Sydney poet and journalist Kenneth Slessor, who lived in Kings Cross and wrote about the people he saw there, Darlinghurst Nights takes its name from a collection of Slessor’s poetry. Written by Max Lambert (music) and Katherine Thomson (book), the musical is set in the Cross during the 1920s and 30s at a time when it was the only place in Sydney where a bohemian life was possible and difference accepted. It was also a magnet for people arriving in Sydney with little money, and criminals.
Justin Smith and Sean O’Shea in Darlinghurst Nights. Photograph © Brett Boardman
The show features a narrator figure called Ken (Sean O’Shea), based on Slessor, and various colourful characters living in the Cross at that time, including Ken’s good friend Joe Lynch (Justin Smith), a political cartoonist and genial, knockabout character with a ready wit, a lively mind and a thirst for a beer, who is also beset by demons. A real-life figure, Lynch died in 1927 when he disappeared from the railing of a Sydney ferry, with bottles of beer in his pockets, presumed drowned.
We also meet Mabel (Baylie Carson), a girl recently arrived from the country; Frank (Andrew Cutcliffe), also from the country and now working as an iceman at a time when more and more people are buying their first Kelvinator, who befriends Mabel; Cora (Billie Rose Prichard) a sex worker who dreams of opening a corner shop but whose aggressive, petty criminal boyfriend Spud (Abe Mitchell) forces her to keep working the streets to help fund his hopeless get-rich-quick schemes; and the enigmatic Rose (Natalie Gamsu), who dresses in furs and other finery and drives a green Rolls Royce. They are all familiar, recognisable types and the musical vividly captures the era and locale – a world we still recognise but which is disappearing fast.
Natalie Gamsu, Billie Rose Prichard and Baylie Carson in Darlinghurst Nights. Photograph © Brett Boardman
Directed by Lee Lewis, the production begins with the entrance of Ken to a soundscape of sirens, traffic and people on the streets. As he takes off his coat, voices begin to sing from the darknesss and then Joe emerges from the shadows – long dead but still haunting Ken who has clearly never quite gotten over the loss, the memory whisking him back to a time long gone when Joe was still very much alive. Slessor’s poem Five Bells, about Joe’s death, is interwoven throughout the musical, along with other pieces of his poetry.
Thomson (who was in the opening night audience) has done an inspired job of moving between the poetic lyrics to dialogue that feels authentic in the mouths of the characters. Mabel may utter a poetic line like “champagne, it’s like drinking wishes isn’t it?” but it still comes across totally believably and the way the characters speak feels real. The segue between poetry and rough-and-ready speech flows naturally and seamlessly.
Lambert’s beautiful music is written in a delicate minor key for the most part and ranges from numbers with a Kurt Weill feel to jazzy, bluesy influences. One song for the men sounds like an English hymn performed by a barbershop quartet, while another is more of a showtune with John O’Connell’s choreography including a kickline. There’s also a searing torchsong given a blazing performance by Gamsu, all of it fitting together perfectly within the soundworld that Lambert creates.
Andrew Sutcliffe and Baylie Carson in Darlinghurst Nights. Photograph © Brett Boardman
It’s a beautiful score, full of complex harmonies and lovely melodies, performed by two musicians at the back of the stage – Lambert himself as Musical Director on grand piano and Roger Lock on a number of instruments including double bass, guitar and a bowl of water.
Helming her first musical, Lee Lewis (the Artistic Director of Griffin) has cast it impeccably and directs with a sure but understated touch on a set of wooden palettes designed by Mason Browne. The staging suggests the dock or the dark interior of a pub or back streets at night. There are times when you miss the bright, gaudy lights of the Cross so frequently mentioned (though Trent Suidgeest’s lighting suggests them) but the simplicity works. Browne’s costumes are also highly evocative, adding colour and character.
The performances are spot on across the board. Justin Smith captures just the right mix of robust, easy, larrikin charm and dark emotional undertow as Joe and the friendship between him and Sean O’Shea’s more dapper, restrained Ken is utterly believable. Baylie Carson sparkles as the wide-eyed, naive but spirited Mabel, Andrew Cutcliffe exudes thorough decency as the kind-hearted, handsome Frank who falls for Mabel yet still yearns for the country, Billie Rose Prichard is a rough diamond as Cora who longs for a better life, Abe Mitchell has the necessary grunt and sense of danger about him as the hot-tempered, bullying Spud, while Gamsu brilliantly conveys the pain beneath Rose’s elegant, haughty façade and when she falls apart it is heartbreaking.
Darlinghurst Nights is a small, intimate show about a Sydney now all but gone. Nostalgia and a sense of what has been lost are part of its touching charm, while the cast and creative team bring it to vivid, heartfelt life. A true delight.
Darlinghurst Nights plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until February 3