Review: The Last Five Years, Tabard Theatre

February 25, 2011

by guest reviewer Tom Bovington

The Last Five Years is one of those cult shows that hardcore musical fans have all heard of, but which has never been performed in the West End – as composer Jason Robert Brown said last year in his London debut, “I’ve had my West End debut before any of my shows have!” However, the show is often performed in fringe theatres and university societies, due to its small cast and limited technical requirements and despite its challenging score.

The story is a typical boy-meets-girl and covers their five-year relationship through first date, marriage and unfortunately, divorce. However, the female protagonist Cathy starts the show at the end of their relationship and moves backwards, whereas her successful writer husband Jamie travels the show in chronological order. This sounds like a clever conceit, but is difficult to pull off without confusion as to which year each half of the couple is actually in, although this is aided by a photo-frame device.

The show is essentially a song-cycle, as the characters sing in succession of each other about the trials and tribulations of relationships, displaying heartfelt pain and immense joy throughout. The score visits several styles, including a distinct Jewish feel for some of Jamie’s songs, and gives the actors plenty to play with emotionally, as well as some beautiful soaring melodies. Brown easily masters both comedy and pathos throughout, particularly in Cathy’s songs, which capture heartbroken pain and awkward hilarity.

The Tabard production makes good use of its intimate space and a lovely design, which includes a stage split by a messy collection of writing paper, music scores, love letters and symmetric bedrooms with distorted mirrors that reflect the characters back at themselves. Above each side of the stage are five screens, which initially display five photos of the couple on one side, and slowly disappear and reappear on the opposite side, representing the five years of marriage.

Lauren Samuels of Over the Rainbow fame plays Cathy, the struggling actress whose clingy devotion to her husband eventually drives him away. Lauren was always my favourite Dorothy (although I know West End Geek doesn’t share my views here!) and I’m actually glad she didn’t win – although the Wizard of Oz is currently playing one of the biggest houses in London, Lauren definitely has the better role here. She easily crafts a character who we feel such sympathy for – yes, she is desperate to be loved, but aren’t we all? – she is charming, geeky and dutiful and plays them all with a touch of sadness, as though she knows the inevitable is to come.

What I love about Lauren’s voice is the endless range – she can belt beautifully but also pull back into her stunning head voice, and she isn’t afraid to sacrifice perfect singing for believable acting – I often find the song ‘I’m Still Hurting’ a tad whiney and self-pitying, but she really drew us into the story and showed us her pain as her voice cracked with tears. Particular props to her hilarious performance of ‘I Can Do Better Than That’, when a mid-song entrance by Michael Batten in a very tight pair of boxers threatened to distract half the audience, but instead we remained captivated and laughing.

Batten, who was the understudy for Jamie, displayed ease on stage and a strong chemistry with Samuels during their brief wedding scene together. Unfortunately, his performance was completely overshadowed by his cast mate, and in a two-hander like this, it can be very obvious. He had evidence of a nice voice and put in a valiant effort, but several times I felt very sorry for him and his vocal folds.

His lower range was lovely but the high parts to Jamie’s score (of which there is a lot) was very strained and worsened throughout the show. I worry as to what was wrong with Christopher Pym if this was the better option. Batten also joins the long line of (assumed) gay actors playing straight Jamie unconvincingly – I’m sure there are some straight actors who can play this role, but theatreland seems unable to find them. This perception wasn’t altered by the costume decision of tight t-shirts (to highlight his biceps?) and JLS boots.

Seeing The Last Five Years after listening to the recording for so many years, was very interesting for me, and I’m not sure it was a positive thing. The songs work incredibly well on the CD and also in a cabaret setting. However, the show seems to sit somewhere between a song cycle and a musical but doesn’t benefit from being either.

Unlike Brown’s other song cycle, Songs for a New World, the songs are all connected by a strong plot – however, if you don’t already know that plot or read the programme in depth, you won’t know what is going on, due to the lack of dialogue. For instance, one of my party didn’t realise Cathy was an actress until ‘Climbing Uphill’ and wasn’t quite sure why she was in Ohio with a snake and a stripper.

The limited text of the show could be worked upon to build a stronger narrative. The songs work extremely well in cabaret; the audience is being told a story and the songs can be pushed to extremes of humour and emotion. However, in the show the songs are being sung to a character who isn’t there. There is no connection and the actor is more restrained in their performance, which limits the audience reaction.

Runs until 5th March



One Response to “Review: The Last Five Years, Tabard Theatre”

  1. Lucy Says:

    Very interesting review. I was never a fan of LS, but that’s because she was inherently ‘unlikeable’ for me, which would be a problem for Dorothy but conceivably not for Cathy. I think these roles need a bit more age and experience to make them as complex and witty as they should be – did you never see the Paul Spicer/Julie Atherton production? They were brilliant, Spicer suitably straight and cocky and Atherton warm and intense and funny. They’re probably my dream cast anyway. I’d love to see Gavin Creel as Jamie, actually.

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