26
Jun
12

The Last Five Years

The Last Five Years

Ignatians Musical Society

20th – 23rd June 2012

QPAC Cremorne Theatre

Reviewed by Michelle Bull

Chances are that unless you are a die-hard musical fan, you may not have heard of The Last Five Years. From its initial premiere in Chicago in 2001, this unusual and demanding song cycle written by Jason Robert Brown has had somewhat of a cult following amongst musical theatre circles. Since discovering it about five years ago, I have been a big fan of both the cycle and its composer and so it was with excitement that last Saturday night, I joined an intimate audience at QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre to see it’s latest Brisbane revival, presented by Ignations Musical Society.

The Last Five Years follows the five-year relationship between struggling actress Cathy Hyatt and emerging writer Jamie Wellerstein, as they juggle their emerging careers with the ups and downs of their relationship.

What makes this show so ultimately heartbreaking is the structure of its narrative. The show opens with Cathy (Bethan Ellsmore) beginning at the end; the demise of the relationship, and continuing through to conclude with the dizzy beginnings of their burgeoning romance. This is contrasted by Jamie (Tim Dashwood), who tells the story from the start of giddy young love to the heartbreak of a bitter divorce. The couple collide and interact directly only once in the middle of the production, before separating once again to continue on their opposite journeys.

It’s a tricky structure to wrap your head around and one, which I’m sure, was initially confusing for a few audience members. That’s why from the outset I have to say I was surprised by the lack of a program. Later I found there was a digital copy available online but for a production that’s composition is quite non-traditional, it would’ve been nice to have something more tactile and immediate to reference. The structure became more obvious gradually but a short description of the narrative would’ve been a welcome accommodation to give a little context and background for those audience members not as familiar with the story as some.

This being said, the challenge of a non-traditional narrative is well realised by director, Travis Dowling, whose clever use of staging mirrors the progression of the relationship from each of the characters perspective along their journey as well as providing a sense of intimacy and fragility.

The set itself is simple, with minimal props and lighting used to convey changes in time and place. Resisting the temptation to over clutter, the set design (Tim Wallace) is functional and intimate, adding to the contemporary feel of the production.

Despite each character moving in opposite directions, the accessibility of the setting (along with repetitive motives in the score) provides a steady connection between both characters despite their emotional journeying in opposite directions.

Musically, the score is rich with moments for the audience to indulge as one characters excitement is faintly echoed with a musical reminder of the others heartbreak and this seesaw effect carries on throughout the production leaving the audience in a quasi limbo land of emotions by the end.

Led by Musical Director, Ben Murray, the score is delivered live with sensitivity and wonderful sense of duet with the performers, seeming to exist almost as another voice at times. Contemporary in nature, with the popular catchy feel characteristic of a Jason Robert Brown score, the music helps to facilitate a heartfelt connection to the narrative, tugging at the heartstrings of anyone who’s ever been in love.

Bethan Ellsmore as struggling actress, Cathy Hyatt, is gutsy and fearless in this vocally demanding role. The challenges that present themselves in starting the show from such an emotionally charged place do nothing to distract Ellsmore from balancing a legitimate vocal with an honest and courageous approach to the text.

Likewise Tim Dashwood as up-and-coming writer, Jamie Wellerstein, is authentic in his characterization and also vocally secure. Despite occasionally losing vocal presence through some energetic staging, Dashwoods’s commitment to unraveling the dimensions of this character made for a compelling performance.

Despite the challenges of finding a connection through what are essentially two individual journeys, Ellsmore and Dashwood establish an onstage chemistry that seems to communicate even when they are not, a credit to both the direction and artistic investment by the performers.

It is refreshing to see a small Brisbane Theatre Company like Ignations embracing a challenging and relatively unknown theatre production, and doing so to great artistic success. Within a musical theatre scene that is often saturated by predictable and large, elaborate productions, it is exciting and inspiring to see a stripped back, contemporary work that relates to its audience and unapologetically reflects the raw, gritty and beautiful underbelly of love.


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