The Last Five Years is often referenced in relation to newer works of musical theatre that aren’t strictly in chronological order. If it were an episode of the television sitcom Friends, it would probably be called The One Where His Story Goes Forward and Hers in Reverse. This is what makes it go further than, say, Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Fifteen years after its American debut, it’s had two cast recordings and a motion picture, and has something approaching a cult following, not least because of the unique lyricisms of its writer Jason Robert Brown.
‘JRB’, as his followers and supporters affectionately call him (he doesn’t seem to mind), likes his songs to be even longer and wordier than Sondheim, though here the melodies run smoothly enough. My first encounter with this enthralling love story – which goes against the grain in not having a bold and brash celebratory finale – was in a 2009 London production at the Duchess Theatre, and the original off-Broadway cast recording has been a mainstay in my record collection ever since. But there’s nothing quite like experiencing it in a live theatre performance, and with Brown himself directing this run, I was wholly and unequivocally impressed by it. Even when I knew what was going to happen, I still found it engrossing – always a good thing when one isn’t going into a show ‘blind’.
It was a surprise to see Jonathan Bailey cast in a musical – I had somehow forgotten about the 2013 Almeida Theatre production of American Psycho. His Jamie Wellerstein, a bestselling author, is altogether rather intense, though in a one-act show it is never exhausting to watch. Both he and Samantha Barks’ Cathy Hiatt, an actress struggling to get gigs, belt out the big notes with suitable aplomb, whilst seemingly effortlessness glide their way through the delicate nature of many of the musical numbers.
When the occasion calls for it, the band, led by Torquil Munro, are not only fully visible to the audience, but appear to be part of the action, particularly in a depiction of a series of auditions for various roles, where Cathy finds herself singing accompanied by rehearsal pianists who are either too fast or too loud. Cathy’s sung-out-loud thought processes are sometimes touching, “Why did I pick these shoes? Why did I pick this song? Why did I pick this career? Why does this pianist hate me?” and sometimes hilarious, “Why am I working so hard? These are the people who cast David Hasselhoff in a musical!”
There is, overall, less subtlety than I had previously associated The Last Five Years with, and this has much to do with almost every line being acted out. It’s not strictly necessary to do that, of course, but it works in this production, and gives added emphasis to these songs that would otherwise be that little bit harder to fully engage with.
It’s certainly a unique approach for a two-hander, and with so many monologues in song, and both characters being so dislikeable, at least at face value, it’s a wonder that it’s as captivating as it is.
Unafraid to portray the harsh reality of modern living, this show is a triumph. The set and videos in this production are simple (for which read ‘low-key’ rather than ‘low-budget’) and effective. It’s fast-paced, for sure, though not so much that one is left with “a singular impression things are moving too fast”. The actors sing their hearts out, and a good night out at the theatre is assured.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Tony Award-winning Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown will helm a new London production of his acclaimed musical The Last Five Years, starring Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey.
The Last Five Years is an emotionally powerful and intimate musical telling the story of Jamie and Cathy, two New Yorkers in their twenties who fall in and out of love over the course of five years.
As aspiring author Jamie gets the book deal of his dreams, actress Cathy struggles to get work and make sense of the way her career has turned out.
Can a couple once united by their dreams, stay connected as their paths begin to divide? Known for its unique structure, The Last Five Years sees their stories told in opposite directions; Jamie moving forwards and Cathy backwards through their relationship, meeting only briefly for a moment in time as their stories cross.
Originally Produced for the New York stage by Arielle Tepper and Marty Bell.
Originally Produced by Northlight Theatre,Chicago, USA
Performed by arrangement with Music Theatre International (Europe) Limited
St James Theatre
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12 Palace Street, London, SW1E 5JA