Theatre review: Razor Gang Wars

An immersive historical drama in the 20s set in Sydney's underworld.

Tucked beside Dior and the Westfield tower and the imposing Law Courts in King Street, St James’ Church, is the oldest church in Sydney dating back to 1824. As the audience line up to the door of the Church’s crypt, the courtyard erupts into action with a gangland chase through the audience, mercifully interrupted by a freeze frame, and a welcome from our guide for the evening, Peg Fisher (Kyla Ward) a Detective Merchant.

She introduces us to the context of the criminal underworld of 1920s Sydney, setting up the origin stories of two rival female gangsters, Kate Leigh, aka the Snow Queen (Deirdre Campbell), and Tilly Devine, Queen of the Bordello (Alexandra Smith), as well as Lillian Armfield (Donna Randall), Australia’s first policewoman.

It’s this triangle of power between rival gangs and the nascent police force, that the promenade performance explores, as the audience is guided into the building and ever deeper into the underground crypt, to bear witness to the stories of violent gang warfare and justice.

As with all good promenade theatre, the audience is constantly on the move, and in close proximity to the performers.

One of the first scenes is played out in the entrance room to the crypt. The doors around the audience are closed, and we watch an interview between Inspector-General Mitchell (Leofric Kingsford-Smith) and a young Lillian, tentatively signing up to join the police force, as one of the first female officers.

The Inspector is openly sceptical, refusing to issue her with any weapons, as she will be kept away from the front lines. It is clear that Lilian has other ideas, befriending and helping the prostitutes escape the street as well as their gangster pimps.

As the Razor Gangs’ violent rivalry grows, Lilian becomes more determined to stop the cycle of violence by confronting and dealing with the Queens of the criminal underworld. 

By using the corridors of the crypt, and a number of open spaces, the audience is fully immersed in the drama, action, and violence. This never feels claustrophobic or threatening. Our guide is an expert at stopping the action, before things get out of hand, and leading us deeper into the crypt, and into the narrative timeline of these characters whose lives become ever more embroiled together.

Razor Gang Wars, as a piece of promenade or immersive theatre, establishes the audience as invisible witnesses to the historical events. This is an interesting choice, as work in this genre often includes interactions between characters and audiences, in which the audience is implicated, or put ‘in role’, thereby using the space not just for proximity to the action but to invite audiences to participate in the story world. 

What comes through strongly in the production is the company’s deep passion for bringing history to life. And while there was room for greater complexity in the realisation of the characters, and some adjustments to be made in the levels and pacing of the performances in intimate spaces, the production is nevertheless a fascinating and often surprising revelation of some of our pioneering women fighting for their place in colonial Australia.

Whether that be the unorthodox Lilian Armfield, developing new approaches to policing, or the two criminal ‘Queens’ using every trick in the book, to establish and maintain their illicit empires, it is a great narrative.

Read: Book review: New Australian Fiction 2022, edited by Suzy Garcia

This production is part Animal Kingdom, part Peaky Blinders, shaped as a ghoulish ghost tour of underbelly Sydney, and staged in the atmospheric crypt of St James. 

Razor Gang Wars is part of a season of ‘Tales from the Morgue’ delving into the deadly criminal underbelly of Sydney in the last century. The company deserves recognition for their bold vision and energy in shaking audiences from their digital torpor and back into being in the thick of things. 

Razor Gang Wars: The Rise of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh
Actors Anonymous and Blancmange Productions
The Crypt beneath St James’ Church, Sydney
Tickets: from $80
Razor Gang Wars will be staged until 17 September 2022.

Michael Balfour is a Sydney-based theatre researcher and practitioner.