Review: The Last Five Years, Ensemble Theatre

The Last Five Years is a production for lovers of intimate musical theatre experiences.
Review: The Last Five Years, Ensemble Theatre

Christian Charisiou as Jamie and Elise McCann as Cathy in The Last Five Years. Photo by Phil Erbacher.

The Last Five Years is a musical where the context and story is provided only by songs; solo numbers which move the narrative backward and forward through a five year relationship. However, the rich texture of the piece is in the complex music and the art of the actor/singer. With a focus on quality acting and singing, superb musicianship and engaging direction, this production overcomes some of the issues inherent in the award winning text by Jason Robert Brown to be a relaxed and entertaining night of musical excellence.

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Jamie is a writer and we meet him as he becomes smitten with struggling actor Catherine. Catherine is introduced to us at the end of this five years of storm when failure is all around her. Catherine’s scenes roll sequentially back to the hopeful beginning as Jamie’s spin inexorably toward the sadness of an ending. The meet-cute is avoided but their storylines will intersect at one pivotal point. 

Elise McCann and Christian Charisiou are terrific here with voices that stand alone and, in those very occasional moments, blend beautifully together. Jamie seems to sing about himself and Charisiou is mischievous and energetic as the younger version. His self-absorption builds to torn indifference of the girl he loved and Charisiou skilfully brings out the unlikeable jerk with little apology. Cathy meanwhile sings about Jamie. Her obsession with him and inability to see her life after him is very powerfully reverse constructed by McCann who eventually returns, aided by a subtly evoked costume design, to the perkily irresistible and sweetly excitable girl with charm and self-deprecating humour. McCann is very funny in the painful audition sequences especially.

Musical Director and pianist Daryl Wallis is integral to the professionalism of this production. A graceful and virtuosic presence, his fingers are never from the keys and the lack of jarring electronic flourish or added instruments gives the work a standalone purity to enhance this most complex of music. Perhaps the audio mix on Opening Night did need to be a little more supportive of the upper registers of the voice but Wallis’ responsive playing of such a variety of styles is done with a clear understanding of the textual purposes of each.

Christian Charisiou as Jamie and Elise McCann as Cathy in The Last Five Years. Photo by Phil Erbacher.

There are a lot of songs in this show which runs for over 90 minutes with no dialogue and, despite a various but accessible throughline in the music, many are long and some are ponderously slow. Notwithstanding this, Director Elsie Edgerton-Till has taken strong command of the emotional topography. With only a chair used to effect, Till has harnessed the bareness of the stage to highlight the dissonance of sentiment in each timeline. One is up and one is down, often literally as the edges of the raised stage are used for sitting close to, and eye contact with, the audience.  

While quite fussy and distracting for the first ten minutes, when the lighting plot does settle into a warmth and cold of amber and blue and with fewer cues to challenge the cast, there is a thematic and narrative effectiveness to some of the sharp hits.  The rig unfortunately never compensates for the lack of followspots and the throw forward lights cause glare to the front rows, spoiling some of the tenderness on which the production relies. 

This is an intimate night at the theatre. A shared experience of text and textural density in the story and in the committed excellence of the three gifted performers.

4 stars
★★★★
The Last Five Years

Writer/Composer:  Jason Robert Brown

Director: Elsie Edgerton-Till

Musical Director: Daryl Wallis

Cast: Christian Charisiou and Elise McCann

Set Designer: Michael Scott-Mitchell

Costume Designer:  Genevieve Graham

Lighting Designer:  Karen Norris

29 March - 27 April 2019

Ensemble Theatre, Sydney

Judith Greenaway

Thursday 4 April, 2019

About the author

Judith grew up as a theatre brat with parents who were jobbing actors and singers.  She has now retired from a lifetime of teaching and theatre work with companies small and large and spends evenings exploring the wealth of indie and professional theatre available in Sydney.