Keen followers of musical theatre will be aware of The Last Five Years – the two-hander musical by Jason Robert Brown. It hasn’t been that long since Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey wowed audiences at the then St James Theatre, directed by Brown himself. In this production, as ever, a young woman’s story is told in reverse chronological order and her husband’s story told front-to-back. This borderline black-box production lacks the scenery of the productions in London that have come before it, and with each scene looking more or less like the one before, I wondered how well it would be received and understood by someone who hadn’t seen the show or the movie before (which reminds me, I must get around to watching the latter at some point).
In retrospect, such concerns were fruitless. All, more or less, becomes clear in the lyrics. As someone who periodically listens to the cast recording, it was good to hear the spoken dialogue again. This fringe revival is on to something when members of the audience openly gasp when it is revealed Jamie (Ruari Kelsey) has someone other than Cathy (Bella Bowen) in his personal life. It’s easy to be attentive, even with a familiar storyline and musical numbers as wordy as ‘The Schmuel Song’ and as long as ‘The Next Ten Minutes’, when they are performed as engagingly as this.
One act shows are, by definition, brief – but the ninety minute running time felt more like forty-five. Some credit must go to Allyce Morrissey, this production’s dramaturg, whose incisive additions to the show gave it a fresh appeal, whilst retaining all the essential elements of the plotline. There were simple but effective add-ons: a slight change of lyric here, a reactionary comment elsewhere, and in the up-close-and-personal London Theatre performance space, the characters’ facial expressions spoke almost as emphatically as the songs.
There are opportunities to hear the actors’ singing voices at full volume (“Shall I sing louder? I’ll SING LOUDER!”) and both tackle the variety of musical styles and tempos with flair and confidence. Proceedings are painful to watch sometimes – Jamie’s career as a novelist is flourishing, so there’s book launches and cocktail parties and media interviews, and in all this flurry of activity sits Cathy, a resting actress who feels she is only married in name. The frustration, both with her relationship and with her own career, is quite palpable.
It can be argued that a show like this isn’t supposed to work. The audience already knows the end from the beginning after the first (or should that be last?) lines are sung by Cathy. But the devil is in the detail, and like all good love stories, it’s the little things that count. As for the cast, a note from the director in the show’s programme asserts that the actors “are both going to go onto huge things” – I can only agree. With just keyboards (Flora Led) and guitar (Michael Burrows), the music is as stripped back as the set. Nonetheless, this is a most enthusiastic, raw and intense production, drawing the audience into an emotionally charged story.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.