The Sound of a Finished Kiss (Now Look Here and Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre
June 12 – 16
Australian alternative rock band The Go-Betweens is part of the architecture of this city – not only culturally, but literally, courtesy of the inner city Brisbane toll bridge named in their honour. The indie band found cult fame (but no fortune) with their idiosyncratic music, focussed on the personal rather than the political at a time of political turmoil in the state (the band formed at UQ when Queensland was halfway through Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s almost two decades as Premier). It is appropriate, therefore to have the band’s songs tell the story of a generation and a city that shaped it, which is the tag-line for the world premiere collaboration between acclaimed Brisbane theatre and music companies Now Look Here and Electric Moon, “The Sound of a Finished Kiss”.
At its core, the show, which is written and directed by Kate Wild, is a celebration of the band’s rich musical legacy, frozen in time within the early ‘90s era. It begins however in the less distant past; it is 2016 when one of a now-far-flung group of friends finds a mixtape that transports her from London back to the endless empty days of Brisbane in 1991, when their collective potential still had possibility for fulfillment.
Becky (Kat Henry) has just moved from Toowoomba to the sophisticated big smoke city of Brisbane for university. At O-week she meets Zed (Lucas Stibbard) who has similarly relocated from Mackay, only with a more personal reason driving his desire for a fresh start. For the next two years they hang out as Becky works down a list of coming-of-age milestones and through a series of monologues interwoven with the songs they loved, we see them relive the events which shattered friendships and scattered the four friends of their group across the world. Like the music itself, their stories navigate an array of emotions, from the euphoric to the painful and many moments of humour as snippets of the different perspectives of relationships reveal their distinct characters.
One thing Brisbane does well is tell its own stories, whether in words, through music or on stage. “The Sound of a Finished Kiss” combines all three of these. The show is full of referential fondness for the city and its locations, in descriptions of West End traffic and changes to its landscapes, our slow brown river, its Story Bridge, Queen Street Mall and The Beat. And description of a party in a verandas-all-around-Queenslander in all its swampie, fire-twirling, goon-bladder drinking, literary discussion glory is like a step back in time to a life with a different group of people, with time to spend and squander.
The show’s 90-minute running times flies by, despite the simplicity of its narrative, which is appropriate given that at the age of its characters, everything seems immense. What is big, however, are the sounds of the show’s live five-piece band and four talented actor/musicians. Musical director James Lees of Electric Moon effectively unites the music of The Go-Betweens with Wild’s original story. Although some songs go on a little bit longer than necessary, they all fit effectively into the narrative, especially given the different song writing styles of the band’s two front men, Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. As an opener, the heartfelt ‘Cattle and Cane’ for example, written by McLennan as a longing for his boyhood Rockhampton farm home while homesick after relocation to London, evokes an identifiable recall of wanting to venture forth to a bigger, brighter world and later nostalgia for what has been left behind, in words like ‘I recall coming home through fields of cane… the sky a rain of falling cinders’, especially to those, like me, whose own hometown memories include the evening haze of cane fires and their black cinder burn off.
All members of the ensemble cast deliver in every respect. Kat Henry is a naively-optimistic Becky in counter to Lucas Stibbard’s eyes-downcast, hands-in-pocket loner, Zed, yet together they make ‘Right Here’ an at-once cutesy and heartfelt duet. Lucinda Shaw is a tour-de-force as Karla, Becky’s indie spirit guide. Vocally she is magnificent, moving from husky smokiness to screaming heights in the post-punk B-side ‘Karen’ (written by Robert Foster as a tribute to University of Queensland Library staff). And her later ‘Bye Bye Pride’, about the humility of healing and moving on with life is a memorable combination of vulnerability and vocal power.
As the self-assured and almost larger-than-life Mike, Sandro Colarelli is just as compelling. In ‘Drive for Your Memory’, a song Robert Forster wrote reflecting about his break-up with the band’s drummer Lindy Morrison, he is an irresistible force in description of how Mike is affected by a love that couldn’t be, yet almost was… ‘Deep down I’m lonely and I miss my friend’. And in ‘The House Jack Kerouac Built’, recognition of a bad situation becoming worse, his rich, tremulous modern-day crooning sounds are delicious in their Morrissey shades, especially as he laments his loneliness in the number’s final lines. The song is also unforgettable due to its full band arrangement and it is wonderful to often see its musicians Ruth Gardner, Richard Grantham, Brett Harris, James Lees and Karl O’Shea revealed from behind the back-of-stage scrim screen in some numbers.
Like the breezy, melodic mid-tempo number ‘Spring Rain’ which looks back on living in Brisbane suburbia and ‘driving my first car, my elbows in the breeze’ “The Sound of a Finished Kiss” has an essentially-beautiful simplicity to its experience. As celebration of The Go-Betweens’ rich musical legacy, it is worthy enough in its revisit of Grant McLennan’s melodic genius and Robert Forster’s evocative lyrics. But with its backstory of the city and some of its people, it is simply superb.
The music conjures up the past, as only music can do, beyond just the summer sounds of their most commercial hit ‘Streets of Your Town’. As a then NQ swampie who road-tripped from Mackay to Brisbane in a Datsun Sunny listening to The KLF for life-anew at the University of Queensland, it not only made me sentimental, but left me lamenting about youth being wasted on the young. Indeed, so powerful is its evocation of era, that it can make theatregoers nostalgic for a time and place they didn’t personally encounter.
Regardless of your experience, or otherwise, of Brisbane’s unique subculture in the early 1990s, however, it still offers examination of some resonate, universal themes that will leave audiences with urge to reconnect with friends from long-ago lives. This is a show with an all-too-short initial run whose virtually sold-out season stands as testament to its need to return its sounds of our city to a stage. In the meantime, we can await another viewing with revisit of old ‘Tweens albums and re-read of “He Died with a Felafel in His Hand” and “Zigzag Street”.