In the back alley behind the popular Kings Cross nightspot World Bar you can be taken back in time to the 1970s, when the World Bar was called The Nevada and it was Sydney’s most infamous brothel. This is Hidden Sydney, a four-storey-high immersive cabaret.
You’re dropped into the heart of old Kings Cross, teeming with sex, drugs, and booze. The show, as it unspools, offers a look at the city before it was ‘cleaned up’, and within that becomes a commentary on what it’s like to be an outsider and find your home in the fringes of society. Contrast with the current climate of increasing debate about marriage equality, which has already resulted in incredibly hateful portrayals of LGBTQI people, there might not be a more pertinent story in Sydney today as it tears off its remaining, fraying fringes.
In smallish groups you climb through the hotel, watching one of the iconic Les Girls preparing backstage for a show, and bearing witness to the scandals of mob bosses and corrupt detectives, before becoming entranced by the sex magic of the notorious Rosie the Witch and finally serenaded with jazz music at the Chevron Silver Spade, which played host in its day to local and international performers of great renown.
The journey from room to room, with extravagant design by Hugh O’Connor that is well-complimented by Matt Marshal’s indulgent lighting, bolsters the authenticity of this entertaining foray into the history of the Cross. It’s a living museum set to music.
Written collaboratively by Trevor Ashley, Ray Badran, Nikki Britton and Benito di Fonzo, the script cleverly intertwines various infamous historical figures and accounts while remaining entertaining. A clearer and more focused narrative would have prevented some of those stories from getting lost in the experience, because there’s plenty of rich content to explore underneath the location changes and messy transitions, but the show stays firmly on its scattered surface. Still, the incredible cast creates something captivating and informative from the script.
Under the direction of Lucas Jervies, these iconic Cross characters from across time come to vibrant life and draw the audience into their worlds. They represent an array of eccentric and disparate personalities who have found belonging in a small strip of inner society, the only space they feel at home.
Ben Gerrard is charming in his eccentricities and equally haunting as a Les Girls performer. He is full of pain and longing even as he invites the audience into his dressing room with self-deprecating humour and upbeat revelry. Gerrard never lets us forgets what’s behind the brave, bubbly face: the world that has squeezed his realm of hope and acceptance into a small back alley and a small stage.
Virginia Gay is Bea Miles, bohemian rebel. She embraces Miles’ peculiar patter and reciting of Shakespeare with great comedy and warmth. Despite the laughs she still makes a clear argument for the life of the Cross and the fun and freedom at the heart of its nightlife. As she shouts her plea for the collective mass to do something fun over the balcony, with the noises of 2016 Sydney rising up from below, she passes around a bottle of wine to share. She is a poignant embodiment of the joy of community and freedom that can often get lost in a fast paced, relentless city.
In the concluding scene in the Silver Spade, Rob Mills croons a jazzy tune, suave as ever, ending the night on a high.
This is an entertaining and unusual experience that is enjoyable and educational – these were real people and the stories are based on real-life events. But more than that, it presents a plea for keeping Sydney’s nightlife alive, and is a powerful reminder that the spaces the city keeps shutting down are often sanctuaries for those who feel like they don’t belong anywhere else.
In the opening scene, Ben Gerrard’s prepping Les Girls character joins Brenden Lovvett on his guitar as they sing a song, composed by Ben Fink, with lyrics from Kenneth Slessor’s poem ‘William Street’.
This song sets the tone for the rest of the show, and as you leave the Silver Spade and head back to 2016 it’s hard not to be reminded of its refrain. It’s a message of comfort for those who feel out of place, and particularly relevant in a climate of bigoted attitudes towards the LGBTQI community. It’s a mantra to hold onto: “you find this ugly, I find it lovely”.