Sunday, June 17, 2018


Kate Leigh. The Worst Woman In Sydney.

Written and performed by Libby O’ Donovan. The Space Theatre. Adelaide Festival Centre. June 15 and 17 2018.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Libby O'Donovan plays Kate Leigh- The Worst Woman in Sydney.
Photo: Claudio Rascella
Rule Number One: No fighting. 2. No complaining. 3.No deferred payment. 4. Respectful behavior at all times. 5. Discretion required. 6. Mum is Boss. Every visitor was bound by the rules of Underworld matriarch Kate Leigh’s sly groggery in Surrey Hills. The iridescent Libby O’Donovan, a vision of Music Hall blonde haired boldness and style moves between the cabaret tables to her original Blues song, All men need Mum. MUM is the code name for Kate Leigh’s sly groggery that provided booze for all after the six o’clock closing time was enforced.

Grog is not all that the amazing Kate Leigh offered.  Thrown into the infamous Paramatta Institute for Girls at the age of sixteen for wandering the streets of her home town Dubbo without apparent purpose , Kate rose from a life of abject poverty to become  the celebrity queen of Sydney’s underworld, dealing in sly grog, prostitution, gang warfare, and cocaine, amassing a fortune along the way and leaving the business to daughter Eileen to run while she was in and out of prison.

In a show of just over an hour, cabaret Diva O’Donovan takes the audience on an intriguing journey through the life of a woman, who battled the odds and survived through her own wile and willfulness.  Through her songs, from brassy Blues to jivey Jazz and lilting, affectionate Lullaby, O’Donovan matches the many shades of Leigh’s rise and fall with her own beguiling vocal range that tells a story that is both as engrossing as it is thought provoking. Backed by her stunning trio of musicians, dressed in the outfits of the time and against a backdrop of black and white projections of old framed photos of Leigh, her criminal husbands, the stern Women’s Temperance Unionist and arch rival Tilly Devine, O’Donovan intersperses narrative with song in a show that is musical documentary, traversing the years with historical fact and the power of her heartfelt song.

O’Donovan’s fascination for Leigh is contagious, her songs beguiling in their honesty and captivating in their flexible range.  Kate Leigh – The Worst Woman In Sydney, however intriguing in the hands of a consummate cabaret artist, is still in need of balance. There is a tendency to become so engaged by the life of her heroine that the songs become subservient to the story. The script could do with tightening so that the songs regain prominence and diversity, as they explore different events, emotions and opinion.

That aside, O’Donovan has struck gold with her combination of criminal history and musical style. It struck me as a concept piece that could be developed into a fabulous full lengthmusical with the introduction of characters in the sly groggery, the nefarious husbands, the law and Eileen. There is a wonderful moment, when Becky Cole enters the stage as razor gang rival Tilly Devine and the two go slash and swipe in a full throated duet.

Like O’Donovan, we cannot help but feel admiration for Kate Leigh. Hearts are softened by the knowledge of her generosity towards the unfortunate and her community spirit such the annual Christmas Celebration. O’Donovan presents a powerful feminist view, and admiration for the women who struggled to survive in a male dominated society. Leigh, whatever her criminal misdemeanours, emerges as a feminist icon and a role model, though perhaps along a different path that would not eventually lead to gaol and bankruptcy. There may be no excuse for the crime, but O’Donovan’s fascinating, vital and thought-provoking performance leaves no doubt that there are grounds to consider unjust cause. This is a terrific work and I hope that we get to see more of it, either on tour or as a full length musical tribute to the women who struggle to survive.