REVIEWER RATING: ★★★.5
Since opening its doors six years ago, Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co has championed the work of up-and-coming Australian writers, playing host to world premieres of a number of homegrown productions, including The Detective’s Handbook (2016), Melba: A New Musical (2017) and Evie May (2018).
In 2020, the Hayes will present more new Australian works than ever before. Kicking off the year is The Life Of Us, presented by 100 Coffees Productions and Neil Gooding Productions. A piece three years in the making, its music and lyrics are penned by Ben Bennett and its book co-written by Bennett and Ashleigh Taylor. Last year, the pair became the first ever Australians to be selected to showcase their work at the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop in Los Angeles, directed by legendary composer Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pippin, Godspell). It afforded them the opportunity to receive feedback on the musical from Schwartz and Winnie Holzman (the book writer for Wicked).
Directed by Neil Gooding, The Life Of Us centres on a long-distance relationship between Charlie (Bennett) and Ellie (Taylor). Charlie has moved to the UK with high hopes of making it big in the music industry. Ellie remains in Australia and has a burgeoning career that she balances with caring for her mother, Grace (Pippa Grandison), who has Dementia. But the two are determined not to let the 17,000-kilometre distance compromise their long-term romance and they regularly Skype.
It’s not long before a spanner is thrown in the works. Charlie writes a song that strikes a chord with the powers that be at a major record label, and he lands the support act slot on Ed Sheeran’s world tour. Best friend-turned-manager Mike (Christian Charisiou) is working hard to make Charlie a household name, but the ever-increasing list of engagements puts the brakes on plans for a trip back to Australia. Meanwhile, Grace’s health is deteriorating and Ellie, her sole carer, is struggling to meet her own day-to-day obligations, let alone contemplate the possibility of visiting Charlie in London. The question becomes whether their relationship can survive the prolonged time apart, or is it a choice between love and once-in-a-lifetime career opportunities.
Running approximately 90 minutes, The Life Of Us tells an uncomplicated story that is apropos to life in 2020. It might not feel like high stakes drama and is, at times, predictable, but it provokes thought as to how much is too much to give up in the pursuit of love, what opportunities should be seized at all costs, and when do distance and divergent lives become too great to overcome. Perhaps, as the show continues to be finessed, its narrative can evolve to ask those questions with greater dramatic impact.
As it is, however, The Life Of Us is entertaining and well-conceived, and it’s an impressive debut for its Australian writers. Bennett’s terrific pop sensibility is reflected in a contemporary score that features a number of catchy hooks. Arguably the most memorable cut – and aptly so – is ‘Make her mine’, the song that catapults Charlie to the top of the charts and which is undeniably deferential to the music of some of today’s biggest male popstars. Don’t be surprised if it stays in your head for some time.
Fortunately, not only are Bennett and Taylor promising writers, but they’re also highly talented performers. Bennett (who originated the role of Brice Nobes in Muriel’s Wedding – The Musical and led the Australian premiere of Green Day’s American Idiot as Johnny) puts his skills to good use as Charlie. His vocals are strong and energetic, and we buy him as a hopeful popstar. As Ellie, Taylor is palpably warm and compassionate. Her voice has remarkable power, her tone is rich and clear, and her breath control is excellent, and it’s a pleasure to hear her sail through the score. Of course, there’s great chemistry between these real-life partners.
Both of the supporting roles here are fittingly cast. Charisiou does well as Charlie’s chipper and loyal friend, Mike, lending plenty of verve to the character, while Grandison’s Grace is a sympathetic and loving mother, confronting her own terrifying and uncertain reality.
Gooding keeps events moving at an appropriate pace and succeeds in creating a believable sense of the distance between Charlie and Ellie, despite the actors often physically being mere centimetres from one another. Lauren Peters’s simple set, comprising four rooms of a house, functions effectively as the backdrop for all events in both London and Sydney.
When it comes to the live music, a tight four-piece band, led by Musical Director Nicholas Griffin, ensures Bennett’s fresh pop score gets the dynamic reproduction it deserves and, thanks to David Bergman, each song sounds great in the Hayes.
The Life Of Us is a wonderful start to Hayes Theatre Co’s 2020 season. This should only be the beginning of the life of this show, not to mention the beginning of the life of its writers as authors of new and exciting Australian-made theatre.
Photo credit: Grant Leslie
THE LIFE OF US – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point
Season: Playing now until 9 February 2020
Times: Tues – Sat 7.30pm | Sat 2.00pm | Sun 3.00pm
Running time: Approximately 90 minutes (no interval)
Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au | (02) 8065 7337