Razorhurst theatre review (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)

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As music theatre opening numbers go, Razorhurst’s is hardly a showstopper. Crime maven Tilly Devine (Amelia Cormack) lumbers around the stage in a pathetic vaudeville display, slow of jazz hand and short of breath, at one point declaring “I’m not doing that” of a more athletic act of choreography.

To be fair to Tilly, she is well over 100 years old. And dead.

And if you think she’s a crotchety old thing, wait until you meet sin sister Kate Leigh (Debora Krizak), who’s even older. And also very much not of the mortal coil.

Together, they’re haunting, well, old haunts, the brothels and sly grog dens they used to rule in Sydney’s Surry Hills early to mid last century, reminiscing about dodging the cops, violent partners and the razor gangs skulking in the shadows.

This new Australian musical has all the elements of zeitgeist theatre: two captivating female protagonists of local history, as conjured by a talented female writer and director, in an examination of sex, class and podcast-ready true crime. Its two attractive leads command the stage. You might even come out of the Hayes Theatre, where it makes its Australian debut (it was commissioned and ran first at Luna Stage in New Jersey), humming a tune or two.

But like Tilly’s moves, Razorhurst makes a lumbering start. For a good hour it’s less musical and more sung-through Wikipedia entry, with exposition heavy numbers that quickly start to sound the same. So much story to tell, so little time to tell it (it runs just under 90 minutes).

This new Australian musical has all the elements of zeitgeist theatre: two captivating female protagonists of local history in an examination of sex, class and podcast-ready true crime.

Andy Peterson (Stalker: The Musical) has written the relentlessly jaunty score, with heavy book and utilitarian lyrics by fellow New York-based Aussie Kate Mulley. Benita de Wit’s direction can’t solve some of the inherent problems in staging. Though it’s beautifully designed by Isabel Hudson, an abandoned booze barn with all the creepy trimmings. Benjamin Brockman’s lighting is so brooding you sometimes have to squint.

Ambitiously taking cues from the John Kander and Fred Ebb masterclasses Cabaret and Chicago, the creators here too warehouse the fourth wall to have their vice queens appeal directly to the audience. It becomes a bawdy storytelling speakeasy, a drop-the-mic battle to reclaim their stories, recreating and reliving the dark history of a suburb and a city. Not a bad idea in itself.

But with just the two of them on stage – plus a single upright piano in accompaniment (tickled by mute musical director Lucy Bermingham) – Cormack and Krizak have to work exhaustingly hard to carry the show. It’s a lot of tell and not enough show. And when they do recreate past glories/trauma, they’re swapping hats so often it can be hard to keep up.

Not until the final scenes do we get any sense of what these women really think and feel about their existence. Their final numbers – On The West End Of London and Look At All The Good I Have Done – showcase solid songwriting and formidable vocal chops, musical portraits of women with wonderfully wild stories to tell and complex motivations for doing what they did. Stories that resonate through generations. Our own hidden history almost never told.

It’s perfect premium TV fodder. It could even be a great musical, with a bit more time to tell it and a bit more heart to make us feel it.

Razorhurst plays the Hayes Theatre until July 13

Image: Amelia Cormack and Debora Krizak, with Lucy Bermingham on piano in Razorhurst. Photograph by John McRae

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