This lost classic of Australian musical theatre is lovingly revived by Lee Lewis for Hayes Theatre Co
As the audience settles into Darlinghurst Nights, we hear a familiar soundscape: a pedestrian crossing bursting into green lights and insistent beep-boops, a murmuration of voices, a growl of vehicles. It’s Darlinghurst, Kings Cross and Elizabeth Bay brought inside and to the stage.
This is the 30th anniversary revival of Darlinghurst Nights, a musical about a world you can see from just outside the Hayes Theatre’s doors – granted, you’d have to go back in time around 85 years to get the full effect, but the spirit of the time stubbornly clings on through waves of gentrification and future-making.
Our guide to the past is Ken (Sean O’Shea), or as we know him now, journalist and poet Kenneth Slessor. Here, he’s living in Darlinghurst, writing for papers and dreaming of being a great poet. He has just written a collection of poetry about the Cross and its surrounds (Darlinghurst Nights was first published in 1933), but he has a feeling that he hasn’t quite yet reached his full potential. His friend Joe Lynch (Justin Smith), a tall-tale-telling cartoonist with a taste for sly grog, seems confident that Ken will make it.
The wrenching truth of it is that Joe – as real as Kenneth Slessor was – is right. Ken’s masterpiece was coming; it would be called ’Five Bells’ and it would be about Joe’s impending death. With this sense of apprehensive grief in the air, Darlinghurst Nights the musical begins to explore another kind of loss: that of a time and place that’s slipping out from underneath the people who live within it.
And what vivid, broad, winsome people they are. There’s Mabel (Baylie Carson), who has just moved into the Cross – fresh off the train from Molong – to gain some of that freedom you could find in certain city living back then. There’s Frank (Andrew Cutcliffe), the handsome ice-man that catches Mabel’s eye, with a steady job seems to match his steady nature; it’s too bad that more and more people are buying refrigerators and soon he’ll be out of work. There’s Rose (Natalie Gamsu), the flapper dripping with pearls, known for the green Rolls-Royce she drives along William and Palmer Streets. And then there’s Spud (Abe Mitchell), who just got out of the clink, and his girlfriend Cora (Billie Rose Prichard). She’s desperate to go straight, but Spud can’t seem to get them out of a life of crime.
Ken knows these characters well; he watches them with the affection of a neighbour and the detachment of an observer. He gives kindness to Rose when she starts to fall into a world of “snow” (read: cocaine), but the real depths of his compassion and worry are for Joe – who hangs somewhere in between living and memory.
To balance the crime and poverty of 1930s Darlinghurst with its free-wheeling bohemia is no easy feat, and Slessor’s early poems, with their jaunty assonance, could sound cheesy here. But Thomson’s book and Lambert’s music is carefully weighted – Lambert’s score is full of minor keys and yearning and Thomson’s book allows for complexity of character and shades of grey.
Lee Lewis is a natural fit for director; her inquisitive eye pushes her ensemble to dig deep into each character, so alive they seem to walk beside us on the street after the show. For her musical theatre directing debut she handles the delicate relationship between scenes and song with care and assurance. We are in safe hands; if you walk down the road and hang a left at the Coke sign, you’ll find Griffin Theatre Co, where Lewis serves as Artistic Director – a cultural gatekeeper of the area and its stories.
Lambert plays his undeniably Australian, secret-gem score onstage for this production as music director, sitting at the piano alongside musician Roger Lock (who plays a variety of instruments and creates the sounds of the harbour with water in a bucket). The ensemble of actors have a sound that brings the score to surprising emotional heights: Prichard’s Cora sings with a texture and grit that contrasts with the smoother, purer tones of Carson’s innocent Mabel; Gamsu has audiences in rapturous cheers with an old-school torch song that vibrates with long-held pain, and Smith has never sounded better as Joe, a sophisticated, distinctly Australian take on the sad clown character, his songs all farewells and warnings.
A stacked-pallet set designed by Mason Browne – with Trent Suidgeest’s cityscape lighting – somehow manages to capture the scrappy, irresistible, dark and possible Cross with so little. Cleverly-judged choreography by John O’Connell helps to coax the natural showmanship of crims and creatives to the fore (a visual shorthand with kicklines), and O’Shea, always watchful, keeps us grounded in the emotional pull of the story.
Darlinghurst Nights shows the end of a freewheeling era on its way to being squashed under the march of politics and progress. But it also provides a vital sense of hope: this area has been muffled and smoothed over time and time again, but it never sticks – there’s an irrepressible, thrumming energy here that is resuscitated by new generations of artists and rebels. This musical, with its sophisticated joys and sorrows, reminds us that there will be real life here again, post lockout laws and high-rises and gyms and juice shops. Its notorious past and seemingly infinite possibilities will always call us back.