Portrait

Vashti Hughes, an actor for all stages. By Fiona McGregor.

Actor Vashti Hughes’ Sydney in extremis

She’s a tall, raw, colonial girl, trained to act, educated in theatre yet her gift for character is so innate it needs no props and barely a skerrick of costuming. You won’t find her in conventional locales. Vashti Hughes is part of a growing band of theatre makers who take what they can get. Cars, pubs, streets, houses – all of these provide a stage. Most recently Vashti has used the minuscule Piccolo Bar for Piccolo Tales, featuring the legendary Vittorio, octogenarian Sicilian at least one foot shorter and 30 years older.

The characters are so vital and prolific, from the black box or the more ambiguous darkness of clubs and bars, that meeting Vashti during the day can be disarming. Kings Cross swirls around us. Vashti’s stamping ground of some decades. It’s a steamy afternoon. A brief, dense downpour gives way to sun. At the next table, a massive Scottish bouncer is on smoko with a trim, black-garbed Lebanese spruiker.

Vashti could play either of those guys. Her model figure has conjured as many men as women, as well as Ayesha, famous transsexual from Les Girls, “a bit of this, a bit of that”. The accents cover a broad palette, back to the old Sydney-fied cockney of Tilly Devine, forward to an eccy dealing Pom “come to visit the convicts who know ’ow to par-ee, right?”

Vashti has played Guido Calletti, gunman from Tilly’s time, fashioning for him the prototypical Aussie wog accent, crim division, pre-Americana. There have been French, German, and the father of all accents, an independent character named Larry Olive, thespian and voice coach to the stars. Larry entertained us recently at a bar, in his mop wig, lairy suit and plummy vowels, scanning the room for “young talent”.

Vashti didn’t wait long when the rude lesson arrived that being an independent artist is a privilege available only to the lucky, intrepid, hard-working, and, often, talented. Her sister Christa and father, Dick Hughes, formidable forces in music, keep the bar raised. While still in her 20s, Vashti went from her own fledgling performances to curating cabarets, successful but stressful in the end. A new character was born to compere each month.

She looked around, thought about history, her own neighbourhood, found director James Winter and birthed Mum’s In, a show set in Sydney’s sly-grog heyday, starring Tilly, Guido, Kate Leigh, gunman Frankie Green, and celebrity prostitute Nellie Cameron.

“Mum’s in” was code for entry to Kate’s interwar sly groggeries. Kate, herself a big blowzy matriarch, older than her peers, a 19th-century Irish-Australian country girl, rough as they come. Kate’s rival Tilly, who dominated the brothel industry, was shriller, more raunchy, less winning, and just as violent. Both were partial to furs and jewels, though Tilly never succumbed to the frump as Kate did. All of this delivered by Vashti with little more than a black dress, and a mic on a bare stage at the Kings Cross Hotel. She sang songs, too, penned with her partner in work and life, Ross Johnston, ex Machine Gun Fellatio. New tunes arrived with each season: Mum’s In played for years.

How does she do it? It isn’t subtle, in fact it’s crude. It’s Sydney vulgarity in extremis, the embodiment of character so full and free you can’t remain disconnected. Vashti doesn’t exactly hide her actual self, nor even pretend. It is more an unleashing. The spirit bursts forth: ordinary and evil alike are played with conviction and glee.

Vashti’s latest show, Piccolo Tales, is not limited by the piccoloness of the Piccolo Bar. Vittorio, who has run this cafe for more than 50 years, is Vashti’s main character. He plays a cameo as well, giving rise to hilarious exchanges between person and impersonator. Half the show is their fights, in language appropriate to this location. Fucka off! No, you fucka off! It is the tiniest theatre I’ve ever experienced, with 10 patrons seated along the wall, and 10 more outside at footpath tables. 

Birthed in this show, along with Vittorio, Ayesha and the eccy dealer, is Abe Saffron, long-time Sydney crime boss, proprietor of Les Girls a few doors down. Now Abe is dead, Vashti dares play him with trousers around his ankles, interviewing a waitress on her knees in his office, to our laughter and the disconcertment of a passer-by. Vashti curses in her Sicilian gravel: “I say hallo to Mr Saffron every day, but he never say hallo to me. Well, I don’t think he’sa Mr Sin or Mr Big, I just think he’sa Mr Rude Cunt.”

The songs are full of brio, spanning with ease the five decades of the Piccolo’s history, and though Ross avows, “I just hide behind those long legs”, his understated presence is crucial. He is the comical foil, the apparently neutral ground on which Vashti’s characters come out to dance, cavort, heckle, lure, fight, lament and celebrate.

Because all the world’s a stage. But only some of us players.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 11, 2015 as "Who’s Hughes?". Subscribe here.

Fiona McGregor
is the author of five books.