Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Review The Last Five Years

The Last Five Years
by Jason Robert Brown

A Final Chapter

The Last Five Years is a gauzy ribboned confection with a bitter pill underneath the wrapping. This two-hander charting the coupledom of novelist Jamie (Jonathan Bailey) and actress Cathy (Samantha Barks), an almost totally sung-through American musical, first performed in 2001, after an intial stumble has become a worldwide success.

It's a piece for a post-war generation - that is post Vietnam War and the many conflicts since then, all boiled down to the short-lived marriage of writer and aspiring actress in New York whose lives and careers are structurally opposed within the piece.

In some ways, this is a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, with the death of love rather than the lovers and an unintended career war between an agented published writer and a performer still on the audition roundabout. A portion of each of the couple's souls are sliced, diced and wither by the undoubted success of Jewish author Jamie and the relative career failure of Irish Catholic Cathy. 

Directed by the composer Jason Robert-Brown, the scenery is minimal. With musicians led by musical director Torquil Munroe on scaffolding above, loft apartment brickwork slide open to bring forward a desk, a door, at one instance a boat and nicely understated use of video footage (Jeff Sugg).

Samantha Barks brings heartrending and humorous soaring vocals to the role of Cathy. She's well-matched by Jonathan Bailey's Jamie whose initial infectious charm and over-confidence hardens into darker ambition and infidelity. 

Like Harold Pinter's Betrayal and Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along  (the song Moving Too Fast perhaps has an oblique reference to the latter), we're given a rewind, as well as a play forward, of the romance and rupture.

Cathy is the musical's catalyst. The first song is her realisation Jamie her husband has left her, Still Hurting, "Jamie decides it’s his right to decide/Jamie’s got secrets he doesn’t confide/ And I’m still hurting.” Her story runs backwards to the dawn of love when life seemed far more straightforward.

From the first, despite the beauty of the songs in a range of styles,  there's sour with the sweet. Principally it's Jamie, whose story runs in chronological order, who is allowed to inscribe his version to the outside world. Even if it is Cathy who catches the complexity of tone at the beginning, realising how lies and authorship interact and now characterise her life.

For throughout the relationship, it is male writer Jamie telling female actress Cathy who she is. From the simple  crassness where, nevertheless, his energy provides wit, of Shiksa Goddess  "I'd say, 'Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!/I've been waiting for someone like.../You, breaking the circle/You, taking the light/You, you are the story/I should write/I have to write!'.

Jamie even assumes the garb of secular rabbidom (there are sly glimpses of Fiddler On The Roof in the musical arrangements and staging) combined with a fairy storyteller in Tbe Schmeul Song.

There he spins a Danny Kaye/Sylvia Fine-type yarn (although the song sweetly stands on its two feet without knowing that) by the light of a fully decked-out Christmas tree, apparently instructing Cathy what she should do to succeed.

The couple only come together musically on stage in a marriage duet "The Next 10 minutes" on a Central Park boating lake where the moment after there's a touch of The Lady Of Shalott drifting off to Camelot as Cathy is sent off in the boat alone.

At the same time Jamie's "If I Didn't Believe" just misses crossing with Cathy's disappointment with her audition in "Climbing Uphill" and marks the point when his glib career-politicking and domestic life merge, as he distances himself from her and what he sees as failure.

The tale of the one left behind is not of course original: A Star Is Born being a prime example. But this piece juxtaposes and sets at odds two separate but not unrelated professions, author and performer.

Maybe the individual stories are not always a tight metaphorical fit but there is more than enough wit and romance in the one-act 90-minute score and book for performers to scoop up and make them their own without the audience having to worry about that.  It's a green light for a tender, bittersweet intimate tale of love and betrayal with a steely core at its centre. 

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