Looking for Lawson at Memo Music Hall was a wonderfully nostalgic, and creative interpretation of the contributions of one of Australia’s finest poets; Henry Lawson. Creator John Thorn shared his inspiration to write this show came after his 2013 roadtrip with his father to Bourke, which was a place Lawson spent a great deal of time, and wrote of in 1902 as “If you know Bourke, you know Australia”. From the hundreds of poems penned by Lawson, Thorn has carefully selected 19 and set each of them to original music to give new emphasis to the excellent wordsmith skills of this troubled artist and a sense of life in Australia from the late 1880s to early 1920s. Accompanied by Lindsay Field on guitar and vocals, and Emily Taheny on vocals, Thorn plays the piano and adds vocals of his own throughout the 90 minute show. Interspersed between the songs are titbits of Lawson’s life to add context to the works presented.
This performance was a revival, having been originally performed at a number of venues including the Adelaide Fringe Festival. The St Kilda lounge location was the perfect setting for a late afternoon of songs and stories to a packed house seated at cabaret tables with dim candles, looking at a small stage and lush red curtains and able to easily access the all important Ember Lounge bar which was open for a full half hour for patrons to enjoy. All this added to the relaxed and jovial atmosphere as the show opened that required the audience to stand to attention and join in “The Sons of the South” – a rousing anthem like piece that was Lawson’s first stepping stone to fame having appeared in the Bulletin newspaper in 1887.
The surprising and impressive aspect of this production was that it was not all folk ballads and colonial style tunes as one might expect. And here lay the production’s strength because it beautifully showcased Thorn’s skill as a musician to emote each poem within a variety of musical genres. He also cleverly structured these poems so that they formed a narrative of their own. “Andy’s Gone with Cattle” was a soft sombre ballad, that contrasted well to the more theatrical Les Miserables styled “Faces in the Street”. “The Shame of Going Back” channelled despair and was well suited to its tango vibe which was a change of pace from the previous rousing rebel duet “Freedom’s on the Wallaby”. By carefully shifting the mood from one piece to the next, the trio were able to successfully keep the audience engaged and allow us to ponder on the raw emotional expression of Lawson and how pioneers of the period battled to survive. The second act takes a darker turn as we learn Lawson further succumbed to alcohol and mental illness, not to mention the death of a beloved. “The Wanderlight” which was apparently Lawson’s most autobiographical work was a captivating rolling ballad that had real impact. The sessions conclude with Lawson’s final poem of 1922, just prior to his death by stroke; “On The Night Train” providing a poignant finish.
Tehany’s voice had a lyrical sweeter quality that contrasted well with the raspy depths of Field. Together their duet harmonies blended perfectly together in such pieces as “The Drover’s Sweetheart” and “Reedy River”. Tehany’ strength as a vocal performer was her ability to evoke a sense of drama or fragility (often within the same song), with the real highlight being her haunting rendition of “Past Carin’”, that also demonstrated how well Lawson was able to convey agony from a woman’s point of view. Field’s gravelly voice is reminiscent of Neil Diamond meets Nick Cave but it was unfortunate that on 3 or 4 occasions that he lost his place during the song despite having a songbook in front of him – as it did interrupt our transportation to that reflective time being expressed. But the richness of his voice and his skilled guitar playing was thankfully able to revert us back, especially with the brilliantly pained delivery of “Do You Think That I Do Not Know?”. John Thorn, without sheet music, was thoroughly engaging both when singing works like “The Fire at Ross’s Farm” with utter conviction, or performing a brilliant piano solo within “The Spirit Girl” which got appreciative applause mid song.
Looking for Lawson was thoroughly enjoyable, and an important addition not just to music performance, but also to our history. It not only pays homage to an Australian icon, it reinvents his works to bring added depth to the power of words through the mesmerising nature of vocal and instrument accompaniment. Thorn’s talent as a music maker is impressive and his well considered poems inventive in their formatting. My only lament was the underdeveloped inclusion of references to Lawson’s life and colonial society, which is a shame given Thorn’s extensive research. The ones shared had an almost ad hoc nature to them, and at times seemed unclear amongst the trio who was going to share the short historical snippet. When they did occur, the audience lapped it up, appreciating the greater context behind the songs. The explanations about Lawson’s favourite drinking publican as a backdrop for “When the Army Prays for Watty” created stronger audience connection and humourous response. Knowing Lawson’s grief at the death of his mistress Hannah gave real gravitas to two of the later works. Perhaps clearer and more frequent inclusion of facts and even definitions of some of the extinct colonial terminology would help shape an even more accessible and impactful production. Even little known facts like Lawson was partially deaf and isolated during his school years would have added to our understanding of the significance of who Lawson was and became. For in the end, Lawson was a man, who despite poverty and hardship, inspired a state funeral with over 200,000 in attendance. This afternoon trio tribute has done the artist justice and made sure the power of his words and his legacy live on.