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.
The Last Five Years is good though, even if it’s been a favourite of mine since I discovered it as a student back in 2002. The Jason Robert Brown musical, now 15 years old, is a wonderfully simple (albeit heteronormative) tale of boy and girl meeting, falling in love and falling apart. Framed by the late 90s NYC arts world (that I watched as a teenager in the suburbs and later joined as a drama school student), his story is told in chronological order and hers in reverse. There are two performers; the only time they interact directly is at their wedding, making the songs function more like reflective monologues. Though there is hardly any book, Brown’s lyrics tell the story clearly and sensitively. Dynamic staging and committed performances, like those in this anniversary production that Brown directs, are necessary to keep this quirky little musical from falling flat. It’s a powerful, disarming show when executed effectively, and this production may well be its new definitive.
Jamie is a writer and Cathy is an actor. They are 23 when they meet; neither has had any success yet but both are wide-eyed, bushy tailed, and ready to fall in love. Jamie quickly becomes a bestselling novelist whilst Cathy is left in his wake, waitressing and doing summer theatre in the depths of the Midwest. It’s within this career disparity that their relationship deteriorates, and I find Cathy painfully echoes my own life as a failed actor. The isolation and jealousy that Brown fosters in his songs is wholly believably and all too familiar.
Both characters are flawed but generally likeable and despite reservoirs of love, it’s not enough to save their marriage. Though both characters can be irritating in their own way, their good intentions and fundamental incompatibility also ring true to anyone that’s endured the heartbreak of an ended relationship or marriage. Here is yet another parallel to my past, but this time I’m more like Jamie – I married young and naive and was divorced by 30 as a result of my own mistakes.
Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey are Cathy and Jamie. Barks is a stronger singer, but Bailey’s full of charisma and confidently flirts with the audience – it’s a lovely touch. Both have great emotional range and their chemistry is undeniable. Their performances, layered with Brown’s storytelling, reduces many to tears. Sniffling and eye wiping is plentiful in this intimate house.
The small scale of the show is fleshed out with some delightful video design by Jeff Sugg and Derek McLane’s set. These provide the context that’s missing from the script and grounds their story in a real time and place, though its Gabriella Slade’s costumes that indicate the 1990s setting. The videos are simple and cartoon-like, a sweet and charming addition that Brown underuses.
Though more of a song cycle with hardly any spoken dialogue (if you were to listen to the soundtrack you would hear almost the entire show) and arguably rather insubstantial, this one-act show has the ability to burrow into the depths of your guts. It’s a heartfelt love letter to the countless New York City artists doing their best to get by and find meaning in each other, and to everyone that’s every fallen in and out of love. The poignant, timeless story of youthful love and loss has the sorts of songs that you play on loop whilst crying in bed with a heart broken by your own failures (I’ve done this more than I care to admit), and those you can dance to after a brilliant first date or a career win. With the excellent performances and slick design of this production, it’s not one to miss – even if you cry through it.
The Last Five Years runs through 3 December.
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