Tilly Devine was a legendary personality of the Sydney underworld. Violent and ruthless, the Darlinghurst madam is brought back to life in Olivia O’Flynn’s short play Crocodile Tears, which cashes in on the glamorous mystique of clandestine criminality. It is an archetypal bad girl story that appeals to our curiosity and thirst for sordid details on things we never dare experience first-hand. Although severely condensed, the play is a powerful representation of Devine’s heyday that offers glimpses into her notorious exploits, and the impulses behind them. For a monologue, O’Flynn makes the right decision to keep the work brief, but its drama prompts many questions that leave us wanting more.
O’Flynn’s own vibrant interpretation of the role builds a strong and satisfying narrative. That aside, there is a significant distance between the actor’s youthful qualities and Devine’s much darker, seedy existence that never really gets breached. We hear amazing tales that inspire wild imaginary visions, although the activity we actually see on stage is subdued by comparison. Nevertheless, the production is an entertaining one that delivers energy and amusement in abundance.
Only a narrow scope of historical figures is ever remembered. Myths are perpetuated to serve dominant ideologies and subversive types are conveniently forgotten. Modern Australia is built, uniquely, on the backs of many indecorous women and men, and much as we try to wipe away our ignoble past, its presence can never be denied. Tilly Devine may have left us a long time ago, and the memory of her legacy continues to fade away, but human nature will continue its replication of experience, warts and all, generation after generation.