Darlinghurst Nights

Lynne Lancaster

Steep yourself in Kenneth Slessor's Darlinghurst Nights .. absorb the atmosphere ...
Darlinghurst Nights

Excellently and lovingly directed by Lee Lewis, this is a marvellous production with a very strong cast, all of whom give magnificent performances. Some of it is quite sad and bleak, and very moving.

Based on the poems of Kenneth Slessor, Darlinghurst Nights is set during the Great Depression, in the same district where the Hayes Theatre now stands. It was first performed 30 years ago (yes, another of those wonderful ‘lost’ Aussie musicals) as part of the STC's 1988 season, and has only rarely been seen since.

In the 1920’s and 30’s, Kings Cross accepted and encouraged bohemian lifestyles; it was one of the few places in Australia where a person could attempt to live anonymously. Thematically, the production is still extremely topical, raising issues of domestic violence, the treatment of women, discrimination and unemployment. For contemporary audiences, it highlights what has and what hasn’t changed for women then and now.

Katherine Thomson's text is expressive and evocative, incorporating Slessor’s poems at various points. Lambert's vibrant score includes soft ballads and incorporates Broadway as well as bluesy, jazz styles – and what sounds almost like a hymn performed by a barbershop quartet comprised of the male performers. A lot of the work has a Brechtian /Kurt Weill atmosphere. There is also a show-stopping torch song number performed by the character of Rose.

The deceptively simple set by Mason Browne consists of various levels of wooden pallets, complemented by Trent Suidgeet’s delightful, atmospheric lighting. John O’Connell's choreography is stylish and impressive.

The play opens with the dapper, suave Sean O’Shea as Kenneth Slessor walking through the audience, accompanied by a soundscape of traffic, people on the streets and sirens. Slessor becomes both narrator and observer and the other characters swirl around him.

We meet Slessor’s alcoholic cartoonist friend, Joe O'Brien (impressively played by Justin Smith) who blends hidden, troubling secrets with vigorous, rather raffish charm. Joe’s drowning in Sydney Harbour would later haunt Slessor, inspiring his best known poem, Five Bells.

We also meet three women: young, innocent, wide eyed and spirited Mabel (Baylie Carson) who is fresh from the country; Cora, an ex-hooker (luminously played by the stunning Billie Rose Prichard) and the worldly and enigmatic Rose (brilliantly portrayed by the charismatic Natalie Gamsu). They are strong but vulnerable. Each of the women is fighting against the rules and regulations imposed upon them by society and trying to create independent lives for themselves.  

The audience also meets the men in their lives: charming Frank the iceman (played by handsome, chiselled Andrew Cutcliffe) who falls for Mabel, and the menacing, hot tempered and violent petty crim, Spud (darkly, deceptively handsome Abe Mitchell), who threatens and controls Cora.

All of them are struggling. Change is coming – Frank will soon be out of a job with the introduction of the Kelvinator refrigerator, for starters. Cora has the difficult choice of attempting to preserve some stability by staying with the abusive Spud, or setting out on her own in a world that is unforgiving of single women. Then tragedy strikes.

We come to care for Frank and Mabel – will they be happy? Rose, seemingly glamorous and elegant and living a luxurious life, disintegrates and tries to find oblivion with a life of drink and drugs – a heartbreaking, powerful performance by Gamsu.

Darlinghurst Nights is uniquely Australian with characters that audiences will immediately recognise. It depicts an era and a world we still recognise but which is fast disappearing. Much has changed but we can still see fragments of what remains once we step outside the theatre door.

4 stars

Darlinghust Nights 
Book by Katherine Thomson
Music by Max Lambert
Based on the boko Dalringhurst Nights by Kenneth Slessor
Produced by Richard Carroll
Directed by Lee Lewis
Musical Director: Max Lambert
Choreographer: John O’Connell
Production Designer: Mason Browne
Lighting Designer: Trent Suidgeest
Music Associate: Roger Lock
Starring Baylie Carson, Andrew Cutcliffe, Natalie Gamsu, Abe Mitchell, Billie Rose Prichard, Sean O’Shea and Justin Smith
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes (approx) including interval

The Hayes Theatre, Potts Point  
4  January - 3  February 2018

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.