Jason Robert Brown opened the show with an emotive song about finding hope in a hopeless situation which he revealed was written the day after the last presidential election.
A new collective of committed artists breathes fresh life into independent musical theatre favourite The Last Five Years with an immersive, music-centric production.
The plot fuses a caper like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Indecent Proposal where mobster types hijack the love story of Jack and Betsy by offering her a weekend in Hawaii to pay off his gambling debt. Betsy escapes the hoods disguised as a showgirl, Jack has pursued her in a troupe of skydiving Elvis impersonators.
Best I can say about Dirty Great Love Story is it could make a great date night for Valentine’s Day because your own relationship will seem so much better than dopey Richard and neurotic Katie’s in this trying-too-hard two-hander.
I started the year intending to see fewer shows than in 2015, when I made 304 visits to the theatre – but, somehow, I seem have crept up to 332 for 2016. The only consolation is that it is still some way off the high water mark of 2014… 383.
Ahead of rounding up various publications #theatre2016 highlights, I’m taking a moment to reflect on my own theatregoing year and my favourite plays, musicals, performances and other events.
As it’s the first of the month, we’re taking a brief moment to remind ourselves of the most popular contributions from our 20+ syndicate Mates bloggers from the month just closed. What were the reviews and other blogs that got readers clicking most? Any surprises?
When The Last Five Years announced an extension of a week just after opening, it meant I was able to nab a pair of cheap tickets down the front, conveniently on the side where the shirtless scene happens, and take a friend.
Blessed with a terrific pair of leads, The Last Five Years makes a welcome return to Australia in this affecting involving and insightful production.
Even the most moving performances are often largely removed from our day-to-day lives. But every so often you come across a piece of theatre that, whilst it may not be the objective best thing you’ve seen, encapsulates your life so well that you can’t not fall in love with it.
For those that don’t know this is a two-hander musical telling the story of a married couple from each of their own prospective. However the difference being is that each of them start from the opposite end and work their way back/forward of The Last Five Years.
Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey are just the latest in a line of musically exquisite, broken-hearted couples to tackle Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle. Remember Lara Pulver and Damian Humbley in the UK premiere? Here’s a pictorial timeline including them and other transatlantic pairings you may recognise.
I despair of two-handed musicals. Required to judge the personalities or take sides, you feel trapped. Nowhere more so than at The Last Five Years, in which the partners wail their issues at you in a relentless school-of-not-very-good-rock song cycle which makes you their couples therapist.
You almost wonder where this show can possibly go when the opening number is so strong, so emotive, so damn heartbreaking. Cathy is “Still Hurting” from the break-up of her relationship with Jamie and Samantha Barks is already singing the crap out of her darkest hour when we’ve barely settled in our seats
Opening with two lovers sharing a kiss, for Samantha Barks’ Cathy, an aspiring actress it is her tragic last, while for writer Jamie, played by Jonathan Bailey, it is a trepidatious first.
Due to popular demand, THE LAST FIVE YEARS, starring Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey, has extended its run by a week at London’s St James Theatre.
Tony Award-winning Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown will helm a new London production of his acclaimed musical The Last Five Years, playing at St. James Theatre from Friday 27 October 2016, with a press night on Wednesday 2 November at 7.00pm. Tickets are on general sale at 10.00am on Saturday 25 June.
Arts Theatre, London
Written by Joshua HarmonDirected by Michael Longhurst
Ilan Goodman and Jenna Augen
Acclaimed at Bath last year and sold out at London’s St James Theatre in January, Bad Jews now makes the short hop across town to the Arts Theatre to meet an almost insatiable demand to see the show. Indeed the clamour for tickets has been so strong that it led comedienne Ruby Wax to tweet recently of Bad Jews’ “mostly Jewish audience. If you insult them, they will come”.
The play is provocatively titled because as Harmon admits in the programme, eleven years ago and before a plot had even evolved, he thought it would be “a good title for a play”. Hmm. A dodgy premise for any creative work. Substance needs to come before the packaging and ultimately Bad Jews makes for mediocre drama.
Three Jewish cousins (plus Melody the Christian girlfriend of one cousin) are gathered in New York for the funeral of grandfather Poppy, a Holocaust survivor. Amidst familiar and familial spats of jealousy, rivalry and momentary affection, the plot’s action focusses upon a Jewish necklace (a Chai) that Poppy had kept concealed during his time in the camps.
Religiously committed granddaughter Daphna believes the Chai should rightfully be hers whilst assimilated cousin Liam (who via some family chicanery, already possesses the necklace) is on the cusp of proposing to Melody and plans to give her the Chai in place of a traditional engagement ring. Daphna’s nauseated fury at Liam’s plan is understandable. However where Harmon abuses our disbelief, whose suspension is already hanging by a thread, is in asking us to accept the conceit that WASP Melody would even prefer the battered Chai over a diamond solitaire. It makes for an in-credible pivotal plot-line.
To be fair, Harmon does thread some strands of relevance into his work. His exposition of the vain and arrogant self-belief of Daphna’s piety is spot-on and he offers a further morsel of intellectual meat to chew on as he references the impact of assimilation and “marrying out” upon Judaism’s cultural heritage. Noble arguments and credit too for his attempt to address the impact of the Holocaust upon third generation survivors. But ultimately it’s all packaged up in a bundle of writing that far too often makes for a tedious naivety. Where Arthur Miller once brought a scalpel-like precision to such complex studies of humanity, Harmon wields mallet and chisel and it shows.
Speaking to The Guardian recently Harmon tells of how just before the play opened in Bath, that he had cut a line from the text that referred to the safety in being Jewish today, recognising that the sentiment didn’t accurately reflect the current experience of European Jews. Whilst the edit was necessary, actually the chopped words should never have been written in the first place. For most of the last millennium continental Europe has been a deadly place for Jews – and that’s both before and after Hitler – and Harmon’s failure to acknowledge that continuum, even as he wrote Bad Jews, evidences a worrying ignorance.
And that side-splitting comedy? The programme notes reference Mel Brooks’ The Producers in which Brooks brilliantly lampooned Hitler in his 1968 farce and subsequent musical. However, that The Producers worked at all was because Brooks craftily mocked an evil regime. Here, by contrast, Bad Jews’ audience rather than laughing at the Nazis, are invited to guffaw at a surviving family’s struggles to cope with the Holocaust’s devastating legacy. There’s a whiff of freak-show here and it leaves a nasty taste.
Further credit to some of the performers. Ilan Goodman’s Liam is a focussed channelled force, who notwithstanding the ridiculously Fawlty-esque extremes imposed upon his character, makes us believe in his comfortably assimilated Jewish identity, as well as his love for Melody. Playing his love interest, Gina Bramhill is a strawberry blonde genteel gentile. It’s a novel twist that sees the non-Jew sketched out as a caricatured stereotype, but again and to her credit, Bramhill makes fabulous work of some occasionally ghastly dialogue. That Jenna Augen’s Daphna, almost a year into the play’s run, speaks too often in a squeaky gabble is mind boggling.
Completing the quartet, Joe Coen’s Jonah is the Beavis-type silent one, who too little too late offers an endgame revelation that deserves more analysis from Harmon than the (yet another) sensational moment it is given.
In his song Shikse Goddess, taken from The Last Five Years, Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown, nails the complex and awkward nuances of assimilation with witty yet profound analysis in four minutes. Harmon takes more than an hour and a half to clumsily cover much of the same ground. Somewhere in Bad Jews there could be a good play struggling to emerge. This ain’t it.
Runs to 30th May 2015
It’s been a bit of a week for song cycles – Company at Southwark Playhouse has great tunes but doesn’t really lift the ‘book’ off the page, and The Last Five Years doesn’t even have one. American composer Jason Robert Brown penned fourteen songs for a pair of actors: she sings the cycle going backwards […]
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