Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review: 'The Last Five Years' at the St James Theatre, 2nd November 2016

I've got to figure out whether I should bother seeing musicals. Most of them are complete garbage: plastic performers singing and dancing to plastic songs. It's music and drama for the painfully unadventurous: crowbarred rhymes, failed musicians plonking away on a Casio and rictus grinning, dead-eyed performers, desperately trying fit the Platonic ideal of the musical performer (apparently decided upon by a bunch of luvvies sometime in the mid 80s).

But I quite liked The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown's stripped down two hander that dissects a relationship. Told almost entirely through song, we pick over the bones of Jamie (Jonathan Bailey) and Cathy's (Samantha Barks) failed relationship. The gimmick is that Jamie proceeds through the relationship chronologically, from first meeting to separation, while Kathy travels the same path in reverse. The couple meet on stage only once, when their timelines intersect.

Now, The Last Five Years is pretty much 'White People Problems: the Musical'. Jamie is a hugely successful author, struggling with the burden of his books being popular and highly regarded, women wanting to have sex with him and the existential nightmare of dealing with people continually holding parties to celebrate how great you are. Meanwhile, Kathy is an actor battling the trauma of being married to a rich person while not becoming quite famous a performer as she thought she might be (she is, *gasp* an understudy).

Break out the tiny violins.

In addition, the production itself has more than a whiff of IKEA, feeling a bit like it's taking place in a boho loft conversion. Painted brickwork lines the proscenium arch, the props (slightly cheesily sliding onto stage) are sliced down fragments of scenery, the costuming might have been picked up from the Gap and the lighting favours cool, chilled out pools of blue. All the above should, in theory, add up to a pretty vomitous night. But, hey, I had a pretty good time.

Much of this is down to Bailey and Barks. The lack of on-stage distractions means we end up paying much more attention to them than we would in a show with more people on stage or more glitz. Entire numbers are performed on an empty stage, the pair conjuring up scenes with their body language and voice alone. Both performers excel at this, playing their characters broadly enough to communicate to the back rows while piling on the necessary nuance to make Jamie and Cathy feel like palpably 'real' people.

Jason Robert Brown's songs are also pretty rad (at least as far as musicals go). They're not exactly going to get me singing along in the shower, but each number has some lyrical flourish that makes them worth listening to. Most of my highlights are Cathy's songs; particularly See, I'm Smiling, which nicely captures the numbness of a dead relationship walking and Climbing Uphill, which hilariously savages the audition process. Jamie's The Schmuel Song, a patter fantasy fable about a clockmaker, also impresses - Bailey leaping around the stage and storytelling as much with his body as his words.

This all adds up to a pretty solid analysis of a relationship. The split timelines allow us to deduce cause and effect, simultaneously watching the tiny sprouts of problems and the tangled thicket they eventually grow into. You quickly feel like the characters' therapist, being granted an external view of their flaws that they can never see. The characters' isolation becomes a bit of a salve for their intense privilege, while they live bedazzled lives we sympathise with their loneliness, and the way they're marooned in self-pity.

At just 85 minutes, The Last Five Years ends at precisely the point where I might start to nurse a dislike of its characters, leaving them remaining juuuuuust on the right side of likeable. Two people bleating about how crappy their gilded cages are generally sets my teeth on edge, but I respect the basic writing quality here and Barks and Bailey have great sets of pipes and don't put a performative foot wrong.


The Last Five Years is at the Pleasance Theatre until 3rd December. Tickets here.

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