“I’m not always on time
Please don’t expect that from me”
I think I have to rank Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years as one of my favourite new musicals (it was first performed in 2001) as any show with such a sequence of extraordinary songs as ‘A Part Of That’, ‘The Schmuel Song’ and ‘A Summer In Ohio’ at its heart surely deserves. I had the privilege to be introduced to the show by the Paul Spicer and Julie Atherton-starring version in 2009, I loved it again with Jon Robyns and Danielle Hope a couple of years ago, and I was a fan of last year’s film version and how it adapted the show’s unique structure for a different medium.
The show’s conceit is that he tells the story of a relationship between 2 twenty-something New Yorkers both from start to finish and from finish to start at the same time. So Jamie’s narrative commences in fresh hope at the beginning and Cathy’s opens at a moment of real heartbreak and as they move along their timelines, there’s one moment where they crossover, where they actually interact, a moment of glorious happiness made all the more tragic for already knowing how it is going to end.
And this production does extremely well through the sterling efforts of Torquil Munro’s string-loving musical direction and an ideally-suited pairing in Jonathan Bailey and Samantha Barks. Barks has matured into a beautifully emotive performer (read my review of her album here) and she soars here, sucking us straight into the poignant turmoil of Cathy’s world from her very first note but equally at home in the brighter moments with a neat line in self-deprecating humour. And if Bailey isn’t quite as big a singer (not an issue in his previous musical American Psycho), he more than compensates with a performance full of charisma that can’t help but be entirely adorable.
Brown (whose first show Songs For A New World was seen here at the St James last year) also directs and he makes some curious decisions that almost threaten to derail affairs. With designer Derek McLean, he’s opted for an over-literal staging which severely detracts from the smoothness of the show as prop after prop is moved awkwardly into view. The backdrop of painted windows would be enough but at several points, additional digital windows fly in to show some video or other in a confusing and unnecessary move – weirdly enough, you feel as if he needs to trust his material more.