Show: The Last Five Years
Society: West End & Fringe
Venue: ST. JAMES THEATRE, 12 Palace Street, London, SW1E 5JA
Credits: Written and directed by Jason Robert Brown. Produced by Hilary and Stuart Williams in association with Paul Taylor-Mills.
Author: Ned Hopkins
Perfomence Date: 02/11/2016
The Last Five Years
Ned Hopkins | 03 Nov 2016 13:38pm
Samantha Barks as Cathy and Jonathan Bailey as Jamie in THE LAST FIVE YEARS at St James Theatre. Photo: Scott Rylander
How many musicals are there for just two actors? Only three immediately spring to mind: Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s ‘60s hit I Do, I Do, John Caird and Paul Gordon’s Daddy Long Legs – which opened the St James four years ago – and this, Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. It will, in fact, be the penultimate show at the theatre before it changes its name to The Other Palace in early 2017.
Since opening in Chicago in 2001, the award-winning The Last Five Years has enjoyed an off-Broadway run, numerous productions all over the world – and in 2014 was made into a feature film. It was first seen in London ten years ago at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Judging by the enthusiastic reception it received from a youngish audience at the press night yesterday, its revival in London is overdue.
A ninety-minute love story set in the ’90s, the mainly sung-through show – inspired by Brown’s own failed first marriage – tells how, over half a decade, two ambitious young New Yorkers fall in love and get married, before the strain of their separate careers and (his) infidelity destroy the chemistry they once shared.
Any cast of two has to be spot on. Samantha Barks (Cathy) and Jonathan Bailey (Jamie) are literally pitch perfect, mining the subtext of Brown’s clever – alternately poignant and humorous – lyrics to deliver vocally assured and nuanced characterisations.
At the start of the relationship, Jamie is not to know that his first novel will be successfully published. The longish quotation we hear suggest it is slightly pretentious. Does his intellectual superiority make him get above himself and grow just beyond her reach? She, on the other hand, more down-to-earth and less fortunate in her own (acting) career, spends too much time in Ohio with ‘gay midget Tevyes.’ One entertaining sequence has her auditioning to a catchy but trite show number whilst distracting thoughts pass through her mind.
Maybe creative jealousy is to blame for the failure of their marriage? Perhaps distance and the glamour of Jamie’s new life allows him to succumb to the temptation of other women? Or, were the pair just too young to commit so quickly? Probably all three contribute to the situation. It happens. Nevertheless, they are both ordinary, likeable young people; we have met them before. We empathise. I came away deciding bad timing was chiefly at fault, a strong residual affection making the split all the more painful.
To create the necessary dramatic tension for a simple tale like this to work, Brown’s ingenious device is to let Cathy tell her story backwards Merrily We Roll Along style, whilst Jamie’s unfolds chronologically. It is an emotional seesaw. Hence, we first meet a distraught Cathy clutching the fatal letter and singing Still Hurting whilst Jamie, covered in a bright light, sings chirpily of meeting his Shiksa Goddess. By the end, she is romantically wishing him Goodbye Until Tomorrow as he leaves his letter on the table – clumsily written on paper torn from a crude pad – to the heart-breaking I Could Never Rescue You. The two actors meet face-to-face just once, at the point of Cathy and Jamie’s marriage in the middle of the show, and for one song their timelines intersect. The remainder of the time they imagine the other person is with them. One effective moment finds Jamie in a double bed singing to a pillow – ah, but to whom? To begin with, we think it is Cathy, until the lyrics give away it is a new love although Nobody Needs to Know.
Jason Robert Brown’s richly melodic score is set to his own arrangements and played by a sextet of outstanding instrumentalists directed by Torquil Munro – with some delicious work from the violins. It is sheer joy from beginning to end. Brown (his other principal shows being Parade, Songs for a New World and The Bridges of Madison County) must surely, along with Adam Guetell, be one of a small handful of outstanding contemporary music theatre composers of the post-Sondheim generation.
The production is also visually superb. The band are housed in high reaching constructions that evoke the Manhattan skyline, whilst sliding windows turn into screens for some atmospheric video work. Derek McLane’s original design is enhanced by a lighting design, which makes imaginative use of the stage floor.
The programme tells us that the advance sales for this show (and Rent which follows in December) are the highest in the theatre’s, albeit, short history. This and the high standard of the production, augur well for the future incarnation of the venue as the home of fully realised and experimental new musicals. I was hooked. A five-star, must-see!