The Last Five Years

Judith Wright Centre (Oscar Theatre Company)


Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown

Profit-share production

We know it’s going to end in tears, because the first song tells us so. Cathy is “still hurting”, because her husband Jamie has finally moved out, leaving her alone with her pain. So should we care?

Probably, because although the romance has been (or is going to be proved to have been) fairly conventional, she’s a nice enough kid, and successful musicals have been built on flimsier material.

The convoluted but grammatically correct verb configuration in the previous sentence suggests something about the structure of this fantastic American musical that’s been wowing audiences all over the world since it started taking out awards in 2002. It’s the story of a failed romance, but we see it both backwards and forwards, and on stage the couple meet only in one scene, their wedding, which occurs exactly mid-way through the show. They alternate songs (there’s almost no dialogue in the show) with Cathy, who begins the show with a song detailing the end of the relationship, moving backwards to the beginning, while Jamie’s songs start at the beginning and trace his development as he falls for Cathy, marries her, and gradually falls out of love with her and in love with another woman. The X-structure is a very clever trick, although I’m not sure it adds much to our understanding of the psychology of the characters, but it does give us something else to think about while we’re enjoying the music and the performances.

And it’s here, rather than in the story or the concept, that the true merit of this (if we’re going to be honest) very slight musical lies. The music is really good, not because it has hummable tunes, a characteristic of musicals that went out with Andrew Lloyd Webber, but because it’s edgy, unsentimental (except where it’s intentional and ironic), and very much of-the-moment. We can hear the influence of Sondheim, the progenitor of the modern musical, and we also get moments as bitter-sweet as his, and almost as cynical. This is music that speaks to and for Generations and Y, who want it all but realise, unlike their forebears, that they can’t really have it.

The casting is exemplary. Anyone who regularly checks out Harvest Rain musicals will know the face and voice of Naomi Price, and here her considerable talents and vocal skills are given full rein. Her voice can scale right up the impossible chords that the music demands without ever becoming strained or screeching, and she can also lilt it down to the tender warmth of a self-pitying ballad. She moves beautifully and she’s not afraid to be sexy, although there’s no overt raunchiness in her performance, just the naturalness of a young woman in loving lust.

She’s ably matched by Luke Kennedy as Jamie. He’s not quite as spunky as he was when he blew me over in his roles of Cain and Japheth in the recent Harvest Rain production of Children of Eden, but he’s more subtly sexy, and we can see why the tender Cathy goes for him. Although he becomes the famous author who eventually leaves her behind, his character is one that develops selfishness rather than being that way from the beginning, and the wistfulness he half-displays as he decides to leave Cathy behind to pursue his career is very finely understated, and the more credible for that. His voice manages to control the tricky cadences of Jason Robert Brown’s complex tunes as confidently as Naomi Price’s does, and together they are the perfect combination of voices and characters, alike enough in their modernity, but complementing rather than competing with each other.

The string quintet which provides the live music gave the show even more vitality, and costumes, set and lighting were impeccable. Director Tim O’Connor showed why he is one of the best directors of musicals we have in this city, and although I sometimes wished I could turn the volume down a little, as it drowned out the lyrics, this was an almost flawless production.

We are extremely lucky in Brisbane to have young performers of such talent and initiative – Oscar Theatre Company was founded only three years ago by Emily Gilhome – but the problem is, as usual, that they don’t have the funding to hire venues for longer than a few nights, nor to buy the publicity that will ensure full houses. There’s hardly time for word-of-mouth publicity, either, although there was a healthy audience when I saw the show on the second night, so they’re getting something right.

What one can do is applaud the support of companies like Harvest Rain, who have given these young performers their start, and the confidence to make a go of it on their own. Whatever the limitations of their own family-oriented productions, they do provide work for many of the finest actors and singers in Brisbane, and showcase their talents to audiences who may otherwise may never get to see them. And that’s a firm beginning at least.

If this review is the first you’ve heard of The Last Five Years, you’ll be too late to see it now, as there’s been almost no pre-publicity for the show. All I can do is urge you to keep an eye on the programming schedules for Harvest Rain, the Judith Wright Centre, Metro Arts in Edward Street, the Cement Box at The University of Queensland, and The Powerhouse when it reopens next month, for between them they’re putting on some of the best shows in town. You can easily catch up with their programs by clicking onto the Brisbane Entertainment website –, and following the links to Performing Arts. Then you won’t miss out on shows like this that attract, in my book at least, an 8/10 rating.

Director Tim O’Connor

Music Director Dale Lingwood

Playing from 9 – 12 May at 7.30pm

Duration : 90 minutes, no interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Wed 9th May 2007)