Pros: Incredible vocals, passionate music, clear and exceptional storytelling.
Cons: The technical elements of the show experienced a few issues during this performance.
I had visited St James Theatre once before watching The Last Five Years, to see a friend at one of the new writing nights in the Studio. This was therefore my first time watching a production in the main theatre, with its simple thrust-like stage. I was impressed with how the space seemed full but also intimate: the orchestra performed onstage in this production, which complemented the intimate nature of the show.
The Last Five Years tells the story of Jamie and Cathy, two twenty-something New Yorkers who fall in and out of love over the course of five years. The show has found acclaim thanks to its distinctive structure, in which the two characters’ stories move in opposite directions. Jamie’s story progresses chronologically through the couple’s relationship while Cathy’s moves backwards, with the couple meeting only briefly at the point where their stories cross paths. The musical is almost entirely sung with only a few brief lines of spoken dialogue for context. The majority of the numbers are solos sung by either Jamie or Cathy, as if their partner was there with them.
The show’s unique structure presents a challenge for performers, who have to work twice as hard to make the audience imagine that both characters are present when only one actor is in a scene. Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey rise perfectly to the occasion. Well-known for playing Eponine in the film, West End and 25th Anniversary productions of Les Miserables and for many other West End and Broadway roles, Samantha Barks’ impressive vocal prowess in full force while playing Cathy. Barks’ vocals were flawless and had a distinctive and unique flair.
Jonathan Bailey was just as impressive (if not more so) as Jamie. Known for his TV roles in Broadchurch, W1A and Leonardo, Bailey had a great rapport with the audience and gave an excellent performance: it was clear he was working hard, as he seemed a bit strained by the end. Bailey’s energy, vocals and storytelling brought life to Jamie. He won my heart with his performance of ‘The Schmuel Song’.
I have only seen the show performed once before so I was excited to see this new production directed by its writer, Jason Robert Brown. Although I normally have some issues with writers directing their own work, Brown gave the show new life, depth and clarity with his direction. Even though the staging was not ground breaking, what really shined was Brown’s direction of Barks and Bailey. Both characters were so clearly portrayed that I had no trouble ‘filling in the blanks’ that were left when only one character was physically on stage. Having Brown at the helm of this production gave the show an intensity and transparency that felt new for the audience.
Those who are familiar with the show’s score (or that of any of Brown’s shows) know that similarly to Sondheim, the music is quite demanding for both singers and musicians. Not only did Barks and Bailey perform with grace, but the musicians also stood out as stars of the show. The band, led by musical director Torquil Munro, was very skilled and I was glad that they remained on stage throughout. The video and sets used were simple yet pleasing, albeit they appeared to have a few technical hitches during this performance.
All in all, if you love musicals, catch this one. If you don’t love musicals, you may like it too, as it is quite far from the traditional set up. Either way, it’s a top notch production, one that is music to my ears.
Written and Directed by: Jason Robert Brown
Musical Director: Torquil Munro
Producers: Hilary and Stuart Williams in association with Paul Taylor-Mills
Box Office: 0844 264 2140
Booking Link: https://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk/theatre/last-5-years/
Booking Until: 3 December 2016