When a relationship breaks down, the two people involved inevitably see things from different perspectives, and usually one of them is far more heartbroken than the other. Jason Robert Brown captures this to a tee in his cleverly constructed musical The Last Five Years, which has become something of a cult hit since it premiered in Chicago in 2001 before moving off-Broadway in 2002.

The Last Five Years, Ensemble TheatreChristian Charisiou and Elise McCann. Photograph © Phil Erbacher

The show is written for two performers. Jamie is a young, Jewish novelist whose star is rising fast. Cathy is a struggling actor, who finds herself doing summer stock in Ohio, while hitting a brick wall in her attempt to break into the New York scene. As Jamie’s fame grows, so does Cathy’s insecurity. The two hander traces their five-year relationship from first meeting to breakup.

In his musical Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim told the story of the breakdown of a relationship between three close friends, from back to front. Brown rolls the dice again. Not only does he tell the story from both sides, but the two versions run in different time directions. Cathy’s account starts at the bitter end of the relationship, with the song Still Hurting, and gradually rewinds to their first kiss. Jamie’s story starts at the beginning, with his excitement at meeting Cathy, his Shika Goddess, and moves forward chronologically to their separation.

Their time lines meet in the middle when Jamie proposes to her. It is the only time they sing a song together, to each other, in the show. At the end they also share a number, but by now they are five years apart, so as a glowing Cathy sings “goodbye until tomorrow”, Jamie is saying his final goodbye.

The show consists of 14 songs, each charting a key moment in their relationship. Brown has written both the music and lyrics. Musically, the score ranges from theatre-pop and the blues to the Yiddish influenced Schmuel Song, while Cathy’s audition song has a touch of A Chorus Line about it. Matched by lyrics that are witty, intelligent, insightful and well-crafted, the show creates two very believable characters in a very flawed relationship.

Brown famously based the musical on his own marriage breakup with actor Theresa O’Neill, who threatened legal action, claiming the musical representing their relationship too closely, and so Brown changed one of the songs to reduce the similarity between Cathy and O’Neill. But the emotion and insights are keenly felt.

In this production at the Ensemble Theatre, Elise McCann (who played Miss Honey in Matilda The Musical) plays Cathy, while Christian Charisiou (who starred in Cry-Baby for LPD at the Hayes Theatre Co) plays Jamie. Both are excellent, vividly portraying their characters and the way they change over time as the relationship between them shifts. Charisiou is all boyish enthusiasm initially, then gradually becomes increasingly cocky, arrogant (and unfaithful) as his reputation grows, while McCann gives a radiant performance as she moves from hurt and pain to the sweet optimism she feels at the start of their affair. Her final number as she looks so hopefully to the future is incredibly poignant. She’s also extremely funny in the comic number about Cathy’s awkward auditions.

Elsie Edgerton-Till directs the production, which is simply staged on an open set by Michael Scott-Mitchell with a chair and two small revolves, that are used to spin the characters a tad too often. That aside, the narrative flows with great clarity and emotional nuance. Genevieve Graham’s costumes are also smartly designed, with Jamie’s glasses, shoes and clothes becoming more trendy as his literary credentials soar, while Cathy’s floral frocks become prettier.

The score was composed for a small ensemble but here the singers are accompanied by Musical Director Daryl Wallis on piano, and he does a superb job with the difficult, diverse, frequently beautiful music. All in all, The Last Five Years is a little gem of a show, and beautifully performed by two charismatic performers.

The Last Five Years plays at the Ensemble Theatre until April 27