St James Theatre, London – until 3 December 2016
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, but bound and gagged in your seat.
You’ll want to punch both of them.
Since taking over the small family business of being Éponine in Les Misérables (mother Frances Ruffelle in the original, daughter in the Tom Hooper film), there was never a doubt that Samantha Barks could sing the role of Cathy, but the advance publicity on social media left us in suspense whether Jonathan Bailey would be up to it.
I’ve followed Bailey’s career enthusiastically from jailbait-cuteness in children’s drama through student naïvete and body buffness in Off the Hook and Campus thence via Broadchurch to an admirably smug and ambitious Cassio in the Adrian Lester Othello. I’d momentarily forgotten his appearance under a dodgy blond wig in American Psycho which may be his only other musical work. He’s fine. His singing is competent and strong, even if it looks a bit like recently learned behaviour and he finishes some numbers with the triumphant relief of a Strictly Come Dancing contestant.
Unfortunately, even his winning crooked smile and acted enthusiasms can’t overcome the fact that nerdy, nebbish Jewish writer Jamie, with his new book deal and apparently no other life events in five years, just isn’t someone you’d want to spend time with. Cathy is no more likeable as an actress who hasn’t come to terms with her serial lack of success and moved on to something better.
Some of the songs are charming. Bailey does well with ‘The Story of Shmuel’ a children’s tale of a Russian tailor for whom time stands still while he completes the perfect dress and when not driving the anthems home with the force of a nail-gun, Barks can be sweet and tender in the ballads. They blend well together in the only song for which the characters come together, at their wedding, which makes you bemoan the fact everything else is a solo.
The crude stasis of The Last Five Years – hampered by a chronically cheap and cardboard set by Derek McLane pushed jerkily around with poles and ropes by stagehands and bathed in the sort of blue light favoured by flies in commercial kitchens – is about to be shattered forever by the movie version which not only features Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, but surrounds them with real life settings and people, and turns a stage concert into a film comedy.
As a child, I wonder if Jason Robert Brown would never share his toys. Not content with being writer, composer, and lyricist he’s directing this production with a lack of detachment and self-absorption only rivalled by his insistence on playing the piano in the movie.
Two-handed musical, directed with just one.
until 3 December
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