Conniving, cruel, career criminal or successful, smart and strong businesswoman? Either way you refer to her you have to admit that Kate Leigh had a serious set of lady balls. Her story was truly unique and who better to tell the story of the rise and fall of one of the most influential women in Australian history then cabaret darling, Libby O’Donovan?
In a time where women were told to be attractive but not vain and a little bit educated but no opinionated, one young woman saw an opportunity in Sydney’s notorious underworld. Kate capitalized on the prohibition of both prostitution and cocaine and the 6pm closing of pubs, which eventually became her biggest money earner.
Kate was arrested and jailed for many offences throughout her life which ranged from consorting, to organized crime and was a regular to the courthouse and Long Bay Prison. The press even referred to her at one point as, ‘Kate Leigh: The Worst Woman in Sydney,’ also the title of O’Donovan’s show.
Her public and bloody feud with fellow underworld queen and Madame, Matilda ‘Tilly’ Devine was possibly the most interesting part of her story.They were the most feared gang leaders and the ‘Razor Gang War,’ left members on both sides dead, disfigured or with lengthy prison sentences which was explained in great detail by O’Donovan.
The original music and lyrics in O’Donovan’s show are entertaining, charming and captivating. While providing a deeply researched history of Kate’s life of crime, O’Donovan also challenges the audience to see her story from a sympathetic angle. Kate had an upbringing that was filled with abuse and oppression and after declaring she would never work for another man, she became a very successful and wealthy businesswoman.
O’Donovan gave a haunting and vocally stunning performance about the removal of Kate’s daughter Eileen from her custody. After Kate lied to authorities about her husband’s involvement in the infamous Eveleigh Heist, Eileen was taken to a convent. In one of the lighthearted moments of the show, O’Donovan performs the comical and cheeky number, ‘I Won’t Waltz like Matilda’ in character with real-life partner Becky Cole (as Tilly Devine).
O’Donovan’s three piece ensemble of pianist, Dave McEvoy, bassist Shireen Khemlani and Eric Santucci on the trumpet brilliantly compliment O’Donovan’s stellar voice in numbers such as ‘Some Men’ and ‘Six O’Clock’.
So whether you think she was a villain or a female hero, you can’t deny Kate Leigh was a fascinating woman. She left a legacy that no woman should ever be told how to think, dress or act by a man.
Image: Claudio Raschella