When I went: 21 November 2016
Location: The Other Palace, London
Performers: Samantha Barks (Cathy), Jonathan Bailey (Jamie)
Creative team: Jason Robert Brown (music, lyrics, book and direction)
Approximate price: £60
Special points: Timelines in two directions
Best bit: The Schmuel Song / Audition Sequence
If I could change one thing: Fuller plot
The Last Five Years is a fairly new musical by Jason Robert Brown, which covers five years of a couple’s life together, but takes the unusual step of running Cathy’s timeline backwards against Jamie’s which runs in normal chronological order, with an intersection in their wedding scene.
This structure presents a challenge for the actors who are nearly all the time alone onstage, and also means that the plot can feel a little thin – basically, he starts off charming then becomes self-interested and cheats; she starts off infatuated then is worn down with the struggles of trying to be an actress and her husband’s lack of attention, and not much attention is given to making us believe they would like each other in the first place.
However, the songs are strong enough to carry the show and I like shows like this and Murder Ballad which are presented in one effective act – there is no point stretching a short story out for two acts for the sake of it.
Both Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey did a really great job, especially vocally – even by the high standards of London musicals, Samantha has a really lovely, strong voice and sang almost flawlessly, with only a few occasions where her impressive belt gave way to shouting. I think she would be a great Elphaba in Wicked.
The Schmuel Song, where the character of Jamie tells a Christmassy story, was a masterclass by Jonathan Bailey in how to sell a number – he worked every syllable of that song, and brought plenty of wit to his overall performance. The Audition Sequence by Cathy was similarly fun – Cathy’s internal monologue showed her frustration and the extent to which he had to put on a constant act in her quest to get roles.
I really enjoyed the 6-piece orchestra – there was a violin, two cellos, guitar, bass and pianist conducting from a piano, positioned high above the stage so they were visible, although submerged in near-darkness to highlight the stage. I have seen some reviews criticising Jason Robert Brown’s direction, but personally I found it simple but effective. The staging devices included TV screens showing snow, mirrors, lighted squares, sliding doors and props, but didn’t distract me from the story.
Given that we already know from the end of the story from Cathy’s perspective (which we see at the beginning) that the couple’s relationship does not end at a happy point, it is quite hard to root for them as a couple. However, it is still sad to see Jamie growing more and more annoyed and unlikeable as Cathy becomes increasingly optimistic, with the look she turns to give him at the end a poignant moment.