A lifelong resident of Kings Cross, cabaret starlet Vashti Hughes has a fascination for Sydney history –especially its underbelly. “I think Kings Cross has always been a violent place”, she says. “The razor gangs were running in and out of there in the '20s and '30s and people were getting slashed and shot and bashed.”
Hughes is the writer and sole star of Mum’s In: Stories from Razorhurst – the history-filching, fourth-wall-smashing play currently enjoying its third season at the fifth-floor bar of the King’s Cross Hotel. Based on the stories of five real-life Kings Cross and ‘Razorhurst’ criminals of the late '20s and early '30s, the show brings to life the era of sly grog (the s o’clock closure had been slapped on legal bars) and rampant ‘razor gangs’ (then the weapon of choice over firearms). The inspiration for the script was found in books – notably Larry Writer’s Razor, the same book that inspired Underbelly: Razor – and photos of criminals, with the latter helping to inform the aesthetic of the interactive production.
Ticket-holders are encouraged to dress in period attire. After entering the venue on the ground floor, just follow the flock of flappers straight to the lift, where you’re greeted by one of Mum’s bowler-hatted boys. He’ll ask you for the password (psst – it’s "Mum’s in") then escort you to the fifth floor. There another lackey will ask you to declare your weapons, brand you with ‘razor-slash’ for a stamp and leave to you enjoy a pre-show tipple.
The renovated bar is less than a year old and boasts the most ornate furnishings in the building, and many of the common hallmarks of the latest crop of small bars. Scarlet walls, a classical male nude, coloured fairy lights, greenery and a spacious balcony all give it the feel of a place where you could comfortably sink a few Ballantine’s. A cocktail from the show’s specially designed menu, like the berry-rich Darlinghurst Push, is the other obvious choice.
The audience is then ushered into a different room, comparable in size to El Rocco down the road and with intimate tables, red curtains and its own bar, for the performance. And, true to general Kings Cross form, it’s a bawdy one. First, there’s a monologue from the ghost of notorious thug and coke-peddler Guido Calletti, welcoming the audience to… his funeral. Then, a sing-along (the audience have been supplied with lyrics for the show), with a rousing chorus about “getting fucked up at the Cross” as Ross Johnston of Machine Gun Fellatio fame supplies the era-appropriate music.
Calletti’s rival Frank Green, rebel-rousing prostitute Nellie Cameron and ruthless female pimp Tilly Devine all weave in and out of Hughes’ tale. Last but not least there’s Kate Leigh, the sly-grog pusher who ran over 60 illegal bars in Sydney and was known to locals as ‘mum’. The bar stays open throughout the performance and the sharply dressed bartenders mill about for table service.
As for the show itself, “we wanted it to be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster”, Hughes explains. The script has its dark moments, but in true cabaret style, it’s the barrage of sexual references, dirty talk and smutty songs that gets the crowd going. A more serious bunch could find Hughes’ treatment a touch cheap, but the opening night crowd absolutely lapped it up.