Jason Robert Brown’s cult hit musical The Last Five Years has made its return to London, opening this week at the St James Theatre in Victoria. It tells the story of Jamie & Cathy’s relationship, two twentysomething New Yorkers who are trying to fit their careers & aspirations around their life together, coming up against obstacles & challenges along the way.
What makes this show stand out from the rest is its structure. Cathy & Jamie tell their own side of the story in the opposite order (Jamie moving forward, Cathy going back), only meeting once and at the peak of their love. By splitting them up, we can hear each side of the story and come to our own conclusions; just because we already know the ending doesn’t mean the story is predictable. The direction in which the timelines move works well – Jamie going forward mirrors the progression of his career, whereas Cathy going back reflects her need for renewal as her career founders.
It is almost entirely sung-through, and manages to incorporate a broad range of musical styles within the 90-minute running time. Be they entertaining, catchy ditties (such as Jamie’s Shiksa Goddess), soaring emotional numbers (like the duet, The Next Ten Minutes), a story recounted in song (the irrepressible The Schmuel Song) or a series of auditions (Cathy’s Climbing Uphill) – Jason Robert Brown’s score has it all.
The mechanics of the set are perhaps a bit ambitious for the St James but, nevertheless, the effect is good and allows for a smooth flow in the story. Visually, the backdrop is simple, yet stunning. A plain brick wall, evoking thoughts of their home in New York, but also an unobtrusive background for scenes taking place in a variety of locations. Having the orchestra partially on display on the upper level is a wonderful move.
Jonathan Bailey is a revelation as Jamie. Despite seeing the state Cathy ends up in, you can’t help but fall in love with his cheeky swagger. As the pair play out their scenes separately, they need the audience more than ever to act as their confidante, or even the other half of the couple. Bailey is quick to engage with the crowd and proves to be particularly hilarious in Jamie’s early scenes. The score does test his vocals occasionally, but he has an interesting rocky/bluesy tone to his voice that fits well with the emotional numbers – and combines beautifully with his co-star.
Cathy is a perfect role for Samantha Barks. Not only does it give her various opportunities to show off her powerful, rich vocals, but also her funny side. Barks has a quirky sense of comedy which seems to come naturally, making Cathy feel like a real person rather than simply a character in a musical. Hers is a heartbreaking story, though never overplayed or with even a hint of melodrama.
My verdict? A fun, yet heartwrenching musical that explores the different sides to a modern relationship – if any current show deserves a transfer, it’s this one.
The Last Five Years runs at the St James Theatre until 3 December 2016. Extra tickets have been released, which are available online and from the box office.