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

Rating:


Advertisements

The theatrical among us are often likely to be fairly romantic, waffley and write in a constant stream of thoughts. There are ample theatre bloggers out there; some, like me, have tried to keep to a more magazine-y format of reviews, interviews and theatre features. Others are bold enough just to offer their thoughts on life, art and love. Here is my pick of the theatrical blogosphere…

Gavin Creel Click on the little thought-bubble logo at the top and you’ll read the Hair star’s well-documented thoughts and opinions. One of the chattier, more off-the-cuff blogs on this list, as the actor/bloggers tend to be. But be warned: Gav never met a capitalised word that he didn’t like.

Alexandra Silber This post caught my eye a while ago, for being very frank and cathartic-sounding. Actress and singer Silber blogs about people in her life, her work, and even charming little lists of her favourite things.

Jason Robert Brown On the other side of the piano, but as much of an artiste as the actor types, JRB’s blog is great reading. He uses it to post setlists from his gigs, answer fan questions and set the record straight about pretty much anything. An essential for the hardcore admirer [that would sound less creepy if they had a ‘Renthead’-style name. JRBrains? Answers on a postcard.]

Mark Evans Time for a Brit. Our brand spanking new Fiyero has been blogging about the build-up to taking on the role. He also uses the space to answer fan questions and give an insight into his work. I loved him in Oklahoma last year and really hope to catch him in Wicked soon.

West End Whingers Absolutely, 100% reviewing Marmite. I’ve heard seething accounts and raucous praise for these gents, but I’ve always found it to be a witty read, and a fab alternative to the mainstream, greying purist critics’ drivel that Michael Coveney keeps banging on about.

Love Theatre A young, fresh, British perspective on the theatre world. As well as reviews and interviews, check out the most recent post for Catherine’s guide to getting your thespian fix on a shoestring budget.

Kooman & Dimond This writing duo (and winners of the 2010 Larson Award) blog from New York blog about people singing their songs, preparations for their musical Dani Girl, and recently & passionately, on the closure of Broadway show The Scottsboro Boys.

Ought to Be Clowns For reviews with a pulse, (see again Coveney’s flatlining efforts), this blog opens reviews with a meaningful quote, and deconstructs a production in a chatty, accessible way.

Life & Musicals Looking for someone who blogs with their heart on their sleeve, but remains articulate (and punctuated)? That’s Ava. My only criticism would be that she doesn’t blog enough!

So to summarize, Michael Coveney can kiss my West End butt; bloggers and online reviews enrich my cultural experience, send me off on different creative paths and often offer the most stripped-down, honest opinions on the industry.

If you’d like to add your blog to my list, just comment below with a link and a quick summary of your site.