Music, Lyrics &Orchestration by Jason Robert Brown
Director: John Garfield-Roberts
Reviewer: Tate James
Anyone who has ever been to a musical theatre cabaret since The Last Five Years burst onto the New York stage in 2002 has no doubt heard at least one of its numbers. Jason Robert Brown’s semi-autobiographical strings-heavy score is so often dissected for out-of-context performances of some of its solos, that it is refreshing to see the piece performed in its entirety, and especially to such a standard.
This two-hander song cycle tells the story of how Jamie (Michael Thomas Jenkins) and Cathy (Laura Coard) fall in and out of love. Jamie is an up-and-coming novelist on the brink of success, and tells his story of fame chronologically from meeting Cathy to leaving her five years later. Cathy, on the other hand, is an aspiring performer struggling to find her big break. Her story begins at the moment she realises she is alone, and she proceeds to recount the story backwards to see where it went wrong. The two characters meet only in the middle of the one act musical, when they share time and space for one song as they exchange their marriage vows.
John Garfield-Roberts direction is witty and inventive, using the interesting space of the Forum Studio Theatre to its fullest. A simple, but effectively used, collection of furniture serves as the apartment the couple share and many other locations. He uses subtle visual imagery such as the wedding and the picnic to create simple pictures that are easily recognisable. Lighting design from Oliver Price transports us from the lonely kitchen table to Central Park to a full production number on stage in Ohio brilliantly, creating stunning moods and tableaus.
Controversially, the decision has been made to feature a third cast member in the role of Elise, and although she is well-played, it does allude to the climactic plot point shock earlier than written, which means the later reveal has less impact.
Trish Gaskell leads a stellar six-piece band through a very challenging rhythmic score with fast-paced energy and real heart, from the beautiful melancholy of the cello at the beginning to the haunting violin melody in the final goodbye. The band’s placement within the action on stage gives opportunity for Gaskell’s many enjoyable cameo appearances.
Thomas Jenkins as Jamie is vocally impressive in the rockier elements of Jason Robert Brown’s score, with a lovely tone in the softer moments, but is let down by an inconsistent American accent. From his overly excitable Younger Jamie at the start to the emotionally exhausted man five years later, with a short pit stop for comedy relief during his entertaining rendition of ‘The Shmuel Song’, Jenkins works hard throughout, relaxing as the performance developed.
But the show belongs to Cathy, brought to life by Coard. The difficulty in this particular show is to convince the audience not to dislike the whiny and miserable Cathy we meet in the first scene, but to understand she is the victim of circumstance, which Coard is able to convey from her first solo. Her fierce belt sound shifts into a beautiful soprano effortlessly and her connection with the unseen Jamie is palpable. She uses the witticisms and quirks of Brown’s unique style of writing to imbibe real personality into her delivery. All too often directors choose to present Cathy as the stay-at-home-housewife to Jamie’s brilliant career, but under the guidance of Garfield-Roberts, she cleverly chooses to remind us throughout that Cathy has her own career, albeit not as successful as Jamie’s, and that it is their conflicting schedules and level of acclaim which drives a wedge between the pair. Her final goodbye as we see Jenkins’ distraught Jamie leave shows real hope for a future we can’t predict.
This production marks the professional debut for Monsta Productions, and The Last Five Years is an ambitious project that has paid off. It is encouraging to see exciting musical theatre on stage in the North West. This company will surely go from strength to strength with their obvious ethos of aiming high and paying attention to the smallest detail. As Jamie says in the show “I will never change the world until I do”.
Runs until Saturday 30th July, then Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, 23rd-24th Sept 2016 | Photo: David Mitchell