|Mum's In | Brand X Productions|
|Written by lloyd bradford (brad) syke|
|Saturday, 27 October 2012 12:42|
Photo – Kellie Lafranchi
It's a rich, rich vein to tap into, Sydney's criminal history. And the crims and colourful identities of the past always seem so much more vivid. Perhaps they were. Or perhaps the rosy glow of perverse nostalgia is in play. Anyway, the point is, Vashti Hughes is onto something with Mum's In, playing until the end of time (which would be quite the season, if not for rapacious climate change) at the Kings Cross Hotel's fourth-floor Bordello Theatre; one of this city's best-kept secrets, inasmuch as this city has any. Kings Cross is Hughes' home turf, so she's well-placed to know what she's talking about. What she's talking about, or who, are a clutch of inescapable icons that prevailed in the area through the late 20s and early 30s, when razor gangs ruled the streets, rather than teflon-coated drug barons and nightclub owners. Ironically, it was the state government that unwittingly gave rise to them, by dint of an ill-conceived item of legislation. Namely, the Pistol Licensing Act, which unequivocally ensured gaol for anyone caught with a gun. Thus, rather sharper implements became the tools of illegitimate trade.
The fruits of the gangs' labours are emulated on arrival on the roof of the Kings Cross Hotel, where the director, James Winter, dressed like a sharp hood, emblazons a big, red L on one's palm. This was the format of the infamous Darlinghurst grin, a trademark wound which gashed hapless victims from the ear, down the cheek and across the mouth. Ouch!
There are lessons we've still not learned. Prohibition tends to promote whatever it prohibits. The arguably draconian penalty for gun possession gave rise to much more violent crime, not less. Six o'clock closing of pubs invented sly grog. The ban on the sale of cocaine in chemist shops took it underground. This was the moment when organised crime became highly-organised. And even more highly-profitable. And this was no age of misogyny or, if it was, it didn't stop two forces of nature from presiding: diamond-in-the-rough, Kate Leigh and pommie import, Tilly Devine.
Leigh's specialty was booze (which is why Winter, again as one arrives, asks for the password, the title of the show). By uttering a password at certain well-known, informal establishments, hordes of blokes would gain entry to Mum's (as she became known) pseudo-pubs. Leigh performed this public service from the time of the passing of the Licensing Act, in '27, till feel after I was born (in '59). It made her one of Sydney's wealthiest people. Of course, her income was assured by one or two other sources to boot. Her other nickname being the Snow Queen, I hardly need elaborate. She was also a standover merchant, in her own right, well able to extort. A fence for stolen property. And, as if she needed any cheap thrills, a notorious shoplifter. I understand she favoured DJs.
(In case you're wondering, yes, this background briefing will prove useful, should you choose to see the show.)
Ms Devine started her working life as a pro; a job she performed diligently for a decade. But she graduated from streetwalker to madam overnight, thanks to her perspicacity and a loophole in the Offenses Act that deemed it unlawful for a bloke to profit from the earnings of ladies of the night, but which made no reference to women. While Tilly ruled the roost, Sydney had a brothel network probably only matched, in contemporary terms, by Maccas, Hardly Normal, Gloria Jeans, or 7/11s. And while Tilly raked in the earnings from her girls, her hubby was busy paying them in coke.
Frank Green was a pocket rocket: small on stature but big on temper. He wasn't too particular about who he used either a gun or razor on. He was Tilly's righthand man and wasn't above earning a bit on the side, or having a bit, like North Shore run off the rails, Nellie Cameron. Of course, he wasn't too particular about who he screwed, in any sense, either so, for Nellie, it was put up, shut up, or be shut up, which she often was. Such is the patience of a psychopath, drunk and coke addict.
Frank's arch enemy was Guido Calletti, also an all-rounder and leader of the Darlo Push.
These are the characters in Vashti's cabaret. And she plays them all; sometimes, two at once. Unlike her equally infamous sister, Christa, singing isn't her first and foremost strength. She gets by. But one can barely imagine the discipline involved in conjuring, or channeling (for that's the effect) the time, place, dynamic and character. The piece is dense with monologues and dialogues, with barely a pause for breath. And you're encouraged to get into the spirit of things, not only by dressing the part, which will earn you a substantial discount on your ticket, but by singing along. (Naturally, given the historical figures described and their chosen professions, it's not for the squeamish, or fainthearted. If you're thinking of bringing a party of people down from the bible belt, in them there hills, better forget it. The language is strong. The depictions are lurid.) By way of example, behold the following.
Getting fucked up at the Cross
Getting fucked up at the Cross
Plenty people do it
So don't you give a toss
Do yourself a favour
And get fucked up at the Cross
The show is tightly directed by Winter, who helps wrangle and rally the crowd (he even operates a follow spot). The considerable Ross Johnston (co-founder of Machine Gun Fellatio, with Christa) is at the piano and bangs a mean box. There isn't much in the way of costume, or sets, but who needs 'em? Vashti does the blokes as well as the women and gives a true and palpable sense of their intensity, vivacity and irrepressibility. Mum's In is, thus, like a time-machine, peeling back the veneer of civilisation to reveal the beating heart of a city that has a well-earned reputation as a slut.
Long before Underbelly was a television show, it was alive and thriving, on the streets of Sydney. In Mum's In, Vashti Hughes is alive and thriving too. And inhabiting the spirits of the dark side. Or they her.
Brand X Productions In association with King's Cross Hotel presents
MUM'S IN: Stories from Razorhurst
Written and Performed by Vashti Hughes
Director James Winter
Venue: The Bordello Theatre | Level 4, Kings Cross Hotel, Cnr William and Darlinghurst Rd, Kings Cross
Dates: 12 August 2012 - 24 February 2013
Times: 5pm every Sunday (excluding Public Holidays)
Tickets: $30 Full, $20 if dressed in 1930's costume. STRICTLY 18+
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