Left – Christian Charisiou and Ben Bennett. Cover – Ashleigh Taylor and Pippa Grandison. Photos – Grant Leslie
It’s a privilege to witness the opening night of an exciting new work – The Life of Us at the Hayes Theatre in Potts Point does not disappoint. It is a wonderful addition to the portfolio of Australian written Musical theatre. Finely observed and rich with truth, it also has a score full of killer songs and knockout performances by its small but powerhouse cast.
Even rarer, the work has been penned by its two leads, Ben Bennett and Ashleigh Taylor. They are both immense talents, and I guess this makes them ‘Quadruple threats’ now. In brief, it tells the story of a relationship separated by circumstance, one person pursuing a possible dream while the other unwilling to let go of their past. And it works, it really works. Even though this pair are intimately connected with this story, and their performances resonate with both the joy and pain poured into its genesis, you can see the work will have a life beyond a mere vehicle for this extraordinary twosome. For it is young, contemporary and engaging, but at the same time reveals a sophistication of storyline and character that elevate it beyond mere youthful angst.
And much of this sophistication comes from the two support characters played to perfection by Christian Charisiou and Pippa Grandison. Charisiou as the friend and manager is energetic, focused, and mischievous, and a delight to watch. His ‘Take the World’ number was rock solid, confident and satisfying, while Grandison ripped hearts open with ‘Graces Song’ near the end of the show and it is a skilfully placed moment. Her portrayal of her characters dementia, vacillating between moments of lucidity and confusion was touchingly real and confronting, and her smoky vocals layer a lovely new shade into the vocal mix.
Ben Bennett has written some incredible numbers. They are lyrically inventive, melodic, and mature, yet still retain a modern accessible style that sits comfortably at the forefront of current music theatre style. They suit his voice perfectly of course, and he just got better through the night as he relaxed into the performance.
Taylor has a warm and engaging stage presence and the vocal chops to let fly when she chooses. Unsurprisingly, she seems completely grounded and at home in the story, and the scenes between her and Grandison particularly are very honest and powerful.
There is one inherent staging problem that remains to be solved in the show, however. Much of the communication between these estranged characters takes place through technology and the endless looking down into a screen denies the audience access to their eyes. Particularly at the start of the show it can be quite distancing. For characters that are not allowed to connect, I was very soon yearning for them to connect through us.
It was not until Bennett’s first solo number straight out front that I felt the audience start to thaw and enter the world of the story. But Taylor never really chooses to drop that fourth wall in her solos, which does her otherwise stellar performance no favours. It makes for an alienating start, but I suspect it is fixable because the music bubbles along appealingly, and as the story progresses things start to warm up and connect. There’s a lot going on with the set and staging at the start of the show too and despite its clever solutions, perhaps paring back some of the visual clutter may allow the audience to focus a little earlier too.
But all that is nit-picking really, because this is a really enjoyable night in the theatre, and you will kick yourself if you aren’t one of the first to see the launch of this great new piece of Australian music theatre. The writers have continued to explore and develop the story with the help of some of very experienced friends including director Neil Gooding who has been with the project since its early days. And Broadway legend Stephen Schwartz also mentored the piece in in the ASCAP Musical Theatre workshop in Los Angeles, the first Australian work to ever be invited.
All of the reworking and revision is evident in the mature detail of the final product, and kudos to all involved in the creation of this interesting, intimate, inventive work. Bravo to the Hayes once again for supporting fine new work such as this and bringing it to appreciative audiences at this wonderful cutting-edge venue. It’s a limited season, finishing on the 9th February so you better book fast.
100 Coffees Productions & Neil Gooding Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co present
The Life of Us
music & lyrics by Ben Bennett | book by Ashleigh Taylor & Ben Bennett
Directed by Neil Gooding
Venue: Hayes Theatre | 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point Sydney NSW
Dates: 16 January – 9 February 2020