Razor Gang Wars
Writer: Liviu Monsted
Producer: Liviu Monsted
The Crypt, St James’ Church
September 1-17, 2022
Brain-child of Stephen Carnell, the popular DeadHouse: Tales of Sydney Morgue, returns for a third season featuring Razor Gang Wars: The Rise of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. Written and directed by Liviu Monsted, this iteration of Kate, the Snow Queen versus Tilly, Queen of the Bordello story, prioritises the female point of view by highlighting the inspirational role of Lilian Armfield, a trailblazing policewoman.
The waiting audience’s attention is captured by a scene of street gang violence taking place outside the crypt’s entrance. In what could be a badly lit alley, the confrontation and then a first introduction to the life-hardened lady boss, Kate Leigh (a very convincing and likeable Deidre Campbell) establishes the brutality of the Sydney crime world. Nevertheless, Leigh’s concern for her daughter, Eileen (Lucy Hadfield) draws attention to her role as a mother as well as a woman with the ambition to rule the criminal rather than domestic sphere.
An immersive experience, the audience experience the trajectory of Lilian Armfield’s (Donna Randall) career in the police force as they move from scenario to scenario through the branching passages of the 200-year-old neo-gothic crypt. On entering the crypt to witness the induction of Armfield into the police force – not allowed to marry, carry a weapon or wear a uniform – and clearly disrespected by the male officers invited to “inspect” her, we wonder how she will fare as a door opens and she enters into her chosen world.
Randall brings convincing strength and compassion to her role. This is a woman who can stand her ground amid scenes of bloodshed – and there are several – but tries to prevent young girls from falling into prostitution sustained by drug-taking and consorting with gang members. Her attempts to reason with Nellie Cameron (an appropriately brittle and glamorous Wendi Lanham) called the “Kiss of Death” as rivals for her favours are gunned down, show Armfield’s belief in persuasion rather than coercion. Her failure to convince Nellie, whose beauty gives her an ephemeral agency, shows that Armfield needs the weapon finally assigned to her.
Alexandra Smith as Tilly Devine conveys an alienating heartlessness belying her pretty costume in each of her appearances. Fingering her pearls, she can contemplate the death of her gang members, dwell on the efficiency of cocaine as a method of controlling her “girls” without compunction and consider handling a razor herself. Shaped by her early experiences as a young prostitute, she has acquired power as a means of making herself invulnerable to feeling. She and Leigh, high achievers in a male world, become rivals for “Razorhurst”.
The complicated narrative of the drug wars, and the various men involved as criminals or policemen (Steven Maresca, Chris Miller, Christopher Daw, Shaun Foley and Barrett Griffin), could be confusing but for the wonderful guide (also Peg Fisher) to the underworld narrated by Kyla Ward. As she beckons the audience from scenario to scenario, she holds the unfolding backstreet war together, rendering unforgettable the eventual mention of Special Constable Lilian Armfield – last-named but finally present – in a media write-up of a successful raid on Leigh’s home.
Praise must go to Andrea Tan for the costumes, so evocative of character, and to the crew for managing stage effects while being invisible, and thanks to Campbell and Randall for their effective rendering of an argument which illustrates each woman’s moral compass.