Libby O’Donovan

Libby Odonovan cabaret Festival 2018Kate Leigh - The worst woman in Sydney. Cabaret Festival. The Space. 15 Jun 2018


What a ripper of a show.

Libby Donovan taps into the heart and soul of modern cabaret with this exquisitely devised musical theatre piece.


It centres around the extraordinary life of Sydney crime queen, Kate Leigh, whose acumen running fancy grog shops and marketing drugs and prostitution made her not only phenomenally rich but also a media celebrity of the 1920s to 40s. She was as kind as she was ruthless and, despite the brutal underworld nature of many of her exploits, she was a remarkable businesswoman in an era which brought women few opportunities. This is the feminist message which O’Donovan evokes with her marvellous musical narrative.


O’Donovan arrives in The Space voice first, slowly weaving her way through the crowded cabaret tables, with the spotlight on her massive wig of long blond tresses. That voice is sublime, the theatre sound perfectly balanced so not only the beauty of the soft notes lingers in the air but the precision of every syllable with it. The audience is immediately captivated. It is a good entrance. And the show just keeps getting better.

Of course it is all tightly scripted and directed. It is a bio show with a complicated chronology. But O’Donovan’s loose, casual style makes it feel more like a friend telling an engrossing story. 


She’s clad in a gorgeous magenta beaded and fringed 20s number, not all of it visible thanks to the sight-lines, and a monster fur stole of arctic fox or some such. There’s a lovely old 20s lamp on stage, an armchair and a giant projection screen on which black and white archival photos are presented as in a wooden picture frame. The aesthetic is dramatic. Her three piece jazz band has already established itself with some rousing pre-show entertainment. It settles in to back the star with a companionable spirit. 


And, O’Donovan brings “the worst woman in Sydney” to life in word and song. She does red hot mama with the song Because Mama’s Got the Booze, soul with Lonely Girl, blues with Dangerous Girl, rag with Worst Woman and brings the house down with the fabulous tune of Six O’Clock.  The songs carry narrative punch as well as classic jazz construction dominated by catchy chorus lines. 

At one point, when Kate Leigh’s rival gang leader Tilly Devine is featuring in the storyline, another singer emerges from the audience to parry briefly in the character. The audience recognises it is Kate’s spouse, C&W star Becky Cole, and roars with approval. 


"The Worst Woman in Sydney" is a finely-researched and constructed show. In its 70 minutes, it takes the audience through highs and lows and spots of humour:  marriages and incarcerations, razor wars and shootings, snowstorms of cocaine, and media manipulation. It sets a vivid scene of rough old days of crime and tough old women achieving daunting power against the odds of the justice system. And, it features that wonderful, powerful, versatile voice of Libby O’Donovan and one vivid song after another.  She makes it all seem effortless; the mark of the true pro.




Samela Harris


When: 15 to 17 June

Where: The Space Theatre


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