Review: The Last Five Years, Barbican

“I think you’re gonna really like this show, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t suck”

Performed by actors and musicians from the adjoining Guildhall School, this production of The Last Five Years has set up in the Barbican Pit for a week, after two successful performances earlier this year. I saw this show last year when it was produced by the Notes from New York company, starring the incandescent Julie Atherton and I absolutely loved it. Of all the actresses that I love (and God knows there’s lots of them) Ms Atherton is close to the top of my list, I saw her in Avenue Q maybe 5 or 6 times which resulted in all my subsequent viewings of that show somewhat underwhelming as no matter how hard they tried, her replacements suffered from NJA Syndrome (not-Julie-Atherton…) So I was clearly a little trepidatious as I travelled down into the depths of level minus 2 at the Barbican.

The Last Five Years is a modern musical written by Jason Robert Brown, telling the story of a marriage in breakdown between Jamie, a novelist on the rise and Cathy, an actress struggling to make her mark. The twist is that Cathy tells her story starting at the end of the marriage working backwards whilst at the same time, Jamie begins at their first meeting and moves forward.

As Cathy, Lily James managed extremely well to avoid NJA Syndrome, although she is well served with the more sympathetic of the two roles: starting off broken-hearted and becoming more likeable as a character through the show, it’s hard not to see this as Cathy’s show, especially as the two musical highlights are her numbers too. ‘A Part of That’ was great, the final heart-rending chorus bringing a tear to the eye and ‘A Summer in Ohio’, one of the greatest new comic songs in a musical written in recent years, is snappy and very funny. James has great warmth and humour and exercised a nice level of restraint too, something Freddie Fox as Jamie could have taken note of. In his quieter songs, he captured the emotion of the moment well and delivered his more upbeat numbers with wit and a fantastic ease with the audience. His tendency to belt robbed some numbers of their subtlety though and I would have preferred him to dial it down a bit, but this was still a strong performance.

Alongside the two actors was the 7 person orchestra who were, quite frankly, brilliant. Led by Gemma Hawkins from the piano, the array of strings, both bowed and plucked, provided some stunning layers and textures to the accompaniment and whoever did the arrangement deserves some sort of a medal, it really added amazing depth to the music. The choice to have the orchestra onstage was also a nice one, although I did at times find myself engrossed in watching the players and their obvious enjoyment of playing at the expense of watching the actors. The occasional interactions with the play worked well, but watch out for that slutty cellist! ;-p

I’m not 100% sure that the staging choices for the actors worked though, if one didn’t know the basic premise of the show i.e. the conflicting timelines, I don’t think it would have been made sufficiently clear by this production. The choice to have the one character singing their song to the other quite often wasn’t too problematic in itself, but ended up making little sense with conjunction with the regular costume changes, for it to truly work, the actors would have had to change outfits for every song, re-wearing them as they reached the opposing point in the other’s timeline: there needed to be a much clearer definition of the two strands.

This production was great fun, a totally bargainous price especially given the professional quality of all concerned, and an interesting glimpse at the potential being nurtured at the Guildhall. This class of third years students to which both Lily James and Freddie Fox belong also contains Nikesh Patel, recently onstage at the Royal Court in Disconnect, so clearly they are doing something right. The show is deservedly sold out now, but keep your eye on the Barbican website as similar things should rightly appear for the future.

Running time: 90 minutes
Programme cost: free

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