Production images: Phyllis Wong

Now I really want to look up his paintings, said one young woman peering at her phone as we left.  Me too, I decided, DEAD HOUSE -TALES OF SYDNEY MORGUE: PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A CRIMINAL is such a bizarre tale of true crime.  It is playing at The Rocks Discovery Museum, just a stone’s throw from the old morgue and it is definitely one for true crime fans.

Despite the convict surroundings, this is a tale that comes close to our own time.  For the older audience, it has echoes of a youth and for the younger, it resonates deeply with the current climate around sexual politics.  It’s physically close too.  In a contained space, women, young women, are at touching distance and they are in danger.  Many words have been written about what makes true crime so popular.  Whilst there is no gore or bloodletting here, participants must accept the normally unacceptable.  Women in danger confronts.

It is the story of the Leonard Lawson case and it is so surprising, and the writing so well constructed, that any discussion of the narrative might spoil it for you.  Let’s just say that Lawson died in 2003 and his series of crimes is not something I had heard of previously.   Nor had my friend, who is a true crime follower.

We are greeted by our chaperone who will shepherd our travel and provide commentary and context for the individual scenes.  This ghoulish guide is very well played by Kyla Ward.  Strong of voice, wry and cynical she is responsive and discretely guiding. To chairs for example or “There’s more room over here”.  Not to mention, “Careful there … there’s quite enough ghosts here already.

After Ward’s introduction to both the space and the story, we are drawn into Lawson’s world via events, necessarily episodic, that tease out the story slowly, nudging our increasing incredulity that this is actually true.  Ward does such a good job of harnessing our growing shock at events.

And the script sets the period nicely.  Lawson grew up in the Depression, Bert Hinkler and Ginger Meggs, but we meet him as he talks himself into a job as a photographer with June Dally-Watkins.  A shock of recognition here, myself having been a survivor of the prestigious deportment school.  Why have I never heard of this? Intrigued!

Lawson is played with fierce intensity, uninhibited venality and excellent command of the physicality by Chris Miller.  His characterisation is very well expressed, particularly his loss of control over the fifty minute show.  Initially cleanly presented and ingratiating, his decay into a sloppily attired Lawson with reflections of madness (or pretence) adds to the reality of the production.   He demonstrates a deliciously morbid enjoyment of Lawson’s little interior jabs,  in words like ‘kill’ and ‘shot’.  And being so close to his sleazy machinations is challenging … as intended.

Another good performance is Jacqui Robson as the headmistress.  When she looks down her nose at him and takes off her glasses, it is a clever introduction to her erect, defensive personality. And if some of the other individual performances did not overly impress, possibly opening night nerves, the school chapel scene maintained an engrossing and dynamic atmosphere.  Ensemble cast: Wendi Lanham, Rebecca Waters, Alex Smith, Liviu Monsted.

The story (Writer: Robert Armstrong) is enough to carry the mood and there is some excellent theatricality. (Director: Michael Block)  The thump of movement up the stairs toward you, for example, and the detail of the comic art well placed around the venue.  Lawson was a cartoonist, Buxom Brunettes and Bad Boys according to our host, and the modernity of the comic book cells are placed such that they don’t diminish the aura of the surroundings .

There’s warning notice at the booking stage for this production …(The venue consists of a back courtyard and three floors, with narrow staircases connecting each. Access may be difficult for some.) but the negotiation of the building is not made any more difficult than it has to be.  My new knee coped admirably, there’s no rushing around and stairs are well lit, plus there is provision of seating on the route.

The audio travels with the audience and it is terrifically well created and operated.  There is music everywhere.  A bush soundscape complete with kookaburras can give way to chorus of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’.  Added lighting adds a red or blue hit in places but doesn’t overwhelm and there are some photos projected, re-creations of outdoor events, which adds dimension.

Another note at the booking stage is PLEASE NOTE: These performances contain depictions ofsexual violence and death with semi-nudity. A nurse will be present to assist any distressed patrons.  It might be useful afterwards to have a medical professional around because, if you are like me, you will go down the google rabbit hole and Lennie Lawson will appear in your dreams.  Now there’s a “Why True Crime?” thesis waiting to be written .

Blancmange Productions [Facebook] and Actors Anonymous  [Facebook] present DEAD HOUSE -TALES OF SYDNEY MORGUE: PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A CRIMINAL at The Rocks Discovery Museum  [Facebook]. Tickets at Eventbrite.


  1. I found the stories to be a bit of a mess and the acting hammy at times. I suppose each to their own.

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