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.
There are different ways of putting across a story set some time ago – the beatboxing and rapping in the West End production of Hamilton is still fresh in my mind, set in the era of George Washington and the founding of the United States. One of these days somebody just might do something similar with The Railway Children. That day has not yet arrived, fortunately or unfortunately, but this new musical adaptation (music: Alex Parker, lyrics and book: Katie Lam) is majestic and beautiful. Presented in concert form for one night only at Cadogan Hall, I hadn’t intended on saying much about it, just going along for a pleasant winter’s evening and letting the music and story wash over me.
I was stunned – in a good way – by quite how wonderful the show was. A 24-strong orchestra, conducted by Parker, ensure the 28 musical numbers sound glorious, and a cast of twelve are flanked by a sixteen member choir. I namedrop the choir, in the order their names are given in the show’s programme: Chris Blackburn, Kirsty Cartwright, Lucyelle Cliffe, Emilie Du Leslay, Lewis Easter, Howard Jenkins, Michael Larcombe, Jonny Muir, Louise Olley, Hannah Ponting, Jack Reitman, Rebecca Ridout, Jacob Seickell, Sorsha Talbot, Natasha Veselinovic, Nick Wyschna.
Spoken dialogue is relatively sparse in the first half, where the lyrics drive the narrative. They do so in the second half as well, of course, but there’s a tad more spoken word after the interval. They could, I suppose, have created a musical entirely sung-through, but that would have made the show considerably longer. On the other hand, it would have allowed more opportunity to hear Carrie Hope Fletcher’s Narrator sing more than just the one song. The overture was lengthy for a modern musical, and – equally unusual to see these days – the audience maintained a respectful silence for all of it.
The setting of 1905 hasn’t been changed, and much of the music doesn’t quite hearken back that far. I did feel at times that the show had transported me back to the days of the Great American Songbook, and with neither a sound effect of a train being heard nor a projection of a train approaching to be seen, the storyline, familiar as it was, was thoroughly convincing. It’s the sort of singing that’s more associated with revivals of musicals rather than new works – singing in the proper sense of the word, devoid of belting and loudness for the sake of being loud. Deborah Crowe as Mother was outstanding, a truly lovely singing voice combined with a palpable sense of care and attention lavished on her three offspring, Bobbie (Rebecca Trehearn), Peter (Rob Houchen) and Phyllis (Emma Harrold). Adults with adult voices playing children? The flawless acting more than makes up for that.
Essentially, there are no real surprises to anyone who has encountered The Railway Children before. Indeed, in some respects, not much has changed – trains are still subject to delays and cancellations, and there were landslides then, and there are landslides now (I write this after a weekend of heavy rain in England, which has indeed caused at least one landslide on the railway). There are still some concerns about what may or may not be going on in Russia, and there are many cases today of miscarriages of justice. One man, Paul Blackburn, was convicted in 1978 for the sexual assault and attempted murder of a minor; he was not released until twenty-five years later.
Father (David Birrell) did not have to wait nearly as long to have his conviction overturned (for spying, if I recall correctly from the book – the musical doesn’t make this clear, or if it did I don’t remember it being mentioned). As you know, Father’s release is partly thanks to the efforts of The Old Gentleman (James Bolam MBE, who at 82 proved in this show that age is just a number). I’m always thrilled to see David Birrell on stage, ever since an incident in a 2010 production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Passion, which had a run at the Donmar Warehouse. Birrell was left blind in one eye after a replica gun misfired during a performance, with various side-effects, including hand-eye co-ordination issues, affecting his ability to perform for some time. There was, in the end, an undisclosed payout. Anyway, he does well in this production, in a cast without a weak link.
As ever with new musicals presented as concerts, one can only wonder what a fully staged production would be like. Mind you, someone in the audience said afterwards they had no previous familiarity with The Railway Children, and yet was able to follow proceedings perfectly well, despite no set or costumes. An excellent and absorbing production.
I’ve no idea whether real elephants were used in the filming of The Greatest Showman, though I suspect not: the actual ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ has now closed after 146 years, partly due to a declining appetite for live animals in shows of this nature. I also suspect PT Barnum (in the movie, played by Hugh Jackman) would be pleased with the use of CGI, given his predilection to use hoaxes and ‘freaks’ to make a living for himself.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition in the nineteenth-century narrative set to twenty-first century music – Zac Efron, seen here as Phillip Carlyle, Barnum’s business partner, could, if I hadn’t known any better, be reprising his Troy Bolton from the High School Musical franchise. There are high-energy, high-spirited, all singing, all dancing numbers that provide a distinct feelgood factor. Was it difficult not to applaud at the end of a song? No. This isn’t because of a deficiency in the performances, but simply because the movie itself took pains to showcase the reactions from the audience gathered at Barnum’s circus: the audience in the cinema is therefore watching from the outside in.
The Barnum circus has been somewhat sanitised in this Hollywood picture: there are no conjoined twins or blackface, and nothing even approximates to ‘Joice Heth’, marketed by the ever-imaginative Barnum as being 161 years of age (of course she wasn’t: ‘fake news’, anyone?), a disabled African-American. According to Michael Daly in his book Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked-Tailed Elephant, P. T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, when she died (at somewhat less than 161), a public autopsy saw a crowd pay an entrance fee to watch her corpse being dissected. On the other hand, Barnum’s contributions to the anti-slavery movement aren’t given any consideration either.
Instead, the movie seeks to demonstrate, with some validity, that Barnum sought out people largely shunned by society because of their miscellaneous abnormalities, and gave them not only a livelihood but a sense of camaraderie and belonging. In the end, however, Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams) married an Icarus, so to speak – Barnum rose and rose and metaphorically flew too close to the sun until his theatre and museum burned to the ground.
Elsewhere, I doubt I would have risen to my feet had I saw Rebecca Ferguson’s Jenny Lind in concert, purely based on what I saw in the movie. But I get the point being made – she was a sensation at the time, and would have been celebrated by the great and the good in American society when showcased by Barnum. Still, she was an opera singer, and would not have sung a pop ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on mainstream radio stations, albeit one flanked by a symphony orchestra.
I would say more about some of the so-called ‘freaks’, if only there was more to say about them in the first place. The lack of character development is, in hindsight, rather disappointing. The production values are very high overall, however, and the cinematography commendable. It’s enjoyable, for sure, if conventional with a capital C, and its messages positive and wholesome – follow your heart, but don’t forget that home is where the heart is.
I couldn’t help thinking that we’ve been here before, so many, many times. Lyrics like “Gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out / I am brave, I am bruised / I am who I’m meant to be, this is me” are newer versions of the likes of ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘I Am What I Am’. That said, the tunes are catchy and likeable enough for me to have ordered the soundtrack.
Clichéd but full of heart.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.