St James Theatre, London – until 3 December 2016
At the heart of almost every musical is the progression and development of a love story that can be often entwined with twists, turns and sub plots. Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, however, goes further than that, offering an audience the ambitious conceit of focussing solely upon the relationship itself and how, before their eyes, it simultaneously both forms and unravels.
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. And thereby hangs the bittersweet time-bending vortex of Brown’s work. As his show plays out, Jamie’s story runs forward in time, watching the relationship grow and then decay, as Cathy’s perspective is in reverse, opening with the couple parting as their marriage ends – their two timelines only tanatalisingly coinciding at the “half-way” moment of their wedding day – and her story ending on the heartbreaking excitement of newly discovered love.
Both Barks and Bailey are magnificent, mastering the show’s anti-romantic chemistry. With only the pivotal wedding day scene pitching them opposite each other in real time, rarely do they elsewhere even share the stage, with the plot’s developments and its roller-coaster of emotions typically being played out in alternating solo numbers.
Barks tackles Brown’s complex score with ease. Arguably as good as it gets, her take on I Can Do Better Than That is a highlight. Equally, Bailey’s quasi-autobiographical Jamie bursts onto the stage like a ball of fizzing testosterone, nailing the outer-cool veneer that masks a molten tumult of desire. The comic moments come naturally even when least expected, with the honesty in Barks and Baileys work making the contrasts of heartbreak and hysteria even more poignant.
In a rare treat for the capital, Brown himself has crossed the Atlantic to direct his work with an incisive precision. The set-up is clear from the beginning with a progression that is so carefully constructed that each step of this love story really leaves one wanting to discover the next chapter. For sure, Brown’s beautifully detailed score does a lot of the work for the actors, but with the man himself directing, every nuance is sweetly elicited.
For the most part the show is enhanced by Derek McLane’s design. Two simple sets of typical New York window panes creating the sense of separation. Annoyingly though, other pieces of scenery awkwardly squeak their way on stage and are a minor distraction.
Any score with such complex melodies demands a musical director that can give it life and with his 6 piece band. Torquil Munro does exactly that. With the majority of stand-alone numbers exceeding 5 minutes and limited text, The Last Five Years is no mean feat for both its actors and musicians alike.
Already extended to December and with a stellar cast and the writer himself directing, this production of The Last Five Years is an exquisite display of musical theatre performance. A show for both connoisseurs and fans alike and not to be missed.
Runs until 3rd December
Photo credit: Scott Rylander