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Review: The Last Five Years at The Ensemble

Updated: Apr 6, 2019

By Carly Fisher

Jason Robert Brown’s ‘The Last Five Years’ has become a cult-classic, musical-theatre-nerds favourite and it is no surprise to see a whole new audience with their interest peaked in The Ensemble Theatre as a result of their very clever decision to program this two hander musical into their 2019 season. For all intents and purposes, this musical couldn’t make more sense for this space.

This show is about the voices and that is where this production absolutely soars! The casting of Elise McCann as Cathy and Christian Charisiou as Jamie is perfection. For a two hander musical, most of the show really exists as two sung through monologues where the performer must navigate their world, their emotions but also their changing time (the show spans five years – in chronological progression for Jamie and backwards for Cathy) independently of their co-star. Spare for a short interaction at what we can assume is the 2.5 year mark in their relationship, complete with a wedding dance and a great display of chemistry from McCann and Charisiou, the two never interact and use opposite ends of the small stage to share their experiences of love and life, of career and success or failure, and more with the audience. Luckily, both actors are so skilled that they master this challenge with apparent ease and they are a joy to watch.

Having not seen this musical before but knowing the hype that surrounds it (particularly since the 2014 release of the film version starring Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendricks that got the non-MT nerds excited about an off-Broadway show too!), I must admit, I had higher expectations for the storyline. Whilst I loved the comedy that particularly McCann achieves through the repetition of the audition process and the verbalization of the anxieties that anyone who has been to an audition knows all too well, and the inclusion of plenty of Jewish references for Jamie’s character (love the Shiksa song!), for the most part the plot does move a bit slowly and the hints of misogyny brought on little more than an eye roll. Man, I’d love to see this show, particularly ‘If I didn’t believe in you’ gender swapped!

Where this particular production failed for me was in the direction by Elsie Edgerton-Till. Two small rotators made up the entirety of the set (one had an arm chair placed on top, one was bare) and unfortunately I found that they were just completely over-used. I understood the symbolism of moving in a circle, particularly for a show where the movement of time as cyclical is so central to its structure, but every time emotion was to be expressed, the floor would rotate once again. As an audience member, I wasn’t left with time to feel or experience the pain, or the joy for that matter, of these characters, but instead was focused on the fact that there were, once again, spinning. This same directorial choice but completed with refine and used in moments rather than in consistency would have likely proven powerful and even beautiful. Daryl Wallis’ musical direction seemed to cover much of what Edgerton-Till missed in the extraction of emotion through the songs.

Aside from the spinning, for a theatre with two thirds of the audience to the side of the stage, the entire show was directed just to the front and not in the round, leaving more than half of the audience isolated from too many of the scenes. Being on the side at the Ensemble usually isn’t a problem at all, but in The Last Five Years it is!! The set was too bare for my liking and I didn’t like that I could see elements of the other show with which they are sharing the space accidentally peaking through.

This aside, the heart and soul of the show lies with the two performers and the casting of these two is spot on. I would be happy listening to McCann sing the phone book (please can we see more of this phenomenal performer on our stages!!) and after seeing Charisiou go from the Hayes’ quirky Cry Baby to this, I cannot wait to see what he does next! These two are wonderful and that is what the show is about.

Photo Credit: Phil Erbacher

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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