Adelaide Cabaret Festival
The Space
Until 17 Jun 2018

Review by John Wells

Bit thirsty? Need some sly booze? Maybe a few lines of coke? What about a girl to satiate those carnal cravings? Kate Leigh will sort you out. Or at least she would have, if you had been walking the boulevards and backstreets of Darlinghurst and Surry Hills in between the wars.

Libby O’Donovan’s musical biography of Kate Leigh – sly grog purveyor, cocaine dealer, madam and criminal hard-nut – is a delightful slice of unknown Australiana. O’Donovan takes us from Leigh’s early life as the daughter of a poor Dubbo boot-maker, through her time at the Parramatta Industrial School for Girls and into the life of crime that would bring her notoriety and wealth.

The unambiguous highlights of this show are the beautifully-crafted songs. Intelligent, insightful lyrics and great melodies combine perfectly. With a versatile, unerringly tuneful and evocative voice, O’Donovan brings sass, steel and vulnerability to the tough and complicated character of Kate Leigh. The swinging and hilarious “I’m Not the Worst Woman in Sydney Town” (featuring stories of some very, very bad broads) and the rousing duet with Leigh’s great criminal rival Tilly Devine (played, in an unannounced cameo by Beccy Cole) “You Won’t Waltz Me Like Matilda” stand out. O’Donovan is backed by a wonderful three-piece band who evoke the speakeasy sleaze and wandering danger of Sydney Town.

The production would benefit from better writing and tighter direction. O’Donovan’s between-song commentary is well-researched and informative, but more precise writing would increase this show’s theatrical potential. There are opportunities for more humour and narrative tension, and more nuanced observations of feminism and crime. This is a minor quibble: this is a rollicking, eye-opening and thoroughly entertaining show.