Book: Jason Robert Brown
Director: James Edgington
Reviewer: Rebecca Cohen
For their first in-house production, the beautiful Albert Halls in Bolton could have, and arguably should have, started with more of a bang.
While the venue should be commended for its attempt to transform and experiment with theatre space, The Last Five Years is an overly ambitious choice to begin with on so many levels. For a start, it isn’t the most well known of the sung-through musicals, and marketing the show is never going to be as easy as selling tickets for other classics within the genre including Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, Les Miserables or Rent. On opening night, the venue attracted less than 50 in the audience – a challenge for the strongest of casts, let alone for one with only two performers.
Sam Lupton as Jamie Wellerstein and Stephanie Clift as Catherine Hiatt give solid performances within the production they have to work with and within the intimate ‘in the round’ setting. The pair, who have previously worked opposite each other on the Little Shop of Horrors UK Tour in 2016, are both evidently extremely talented musical theatre performers, with both having West End credits under their belts. They do well in their acting of the unconventional narrative, which tells the story of novelist Jamie and aspiring actress Cathy throughout their five-year relationship – Cathy’s side of the story starting at the end of their relationship, and Jamie’s starting at the very beginning.
But while both have believable chemistry and deliver their numbers with characterisation and style – in particular I’m A Part of That and If I Didn’t Believe in You –the duo are let down by clumsy direction including some random interaction with audience members, which breaks barriers that shouldn’t be broken, a lack of fluidity between scene changes and perhaps most frustratingly, a distractingly poor sound quality.
And while the score is delivered well, it only has so much scope and depth, with the ‘band’ being just one single keyboard player. This means the performers’ vocals literally have nowhere to hide, and at times, the more demanding moments do show. The spine-tingling sensations you would get with a full orchestra, as numbers reach their crescendo, fail to come to fruition, and it does mean that by the end of the production you do leave feeling a little flat.
This is a show that, in its prime, is most appreciated and valued by musical theatre lovers. There is a natural lack of memorable melody, which means it is vital for this production to encapsulate an audience through storytelling – but done well, it has the potential to be a real hit. Unfortunately this adaptation has the right ingredients in the casting, but needs far more investment in its overall production to make a bigger impact.
Starting smaller may have been the answer for this venue, but it certainly shouldn’t be the last in-house production with such a phenomenal space to work with. The very nature of these risks means that some will be worth it, and others you simply have to learn from – this was the same for the Manchester Gets It First Initiative, which initially thrived with Ghost the Musical, but was then followed by a less than average production of Monkey Business.
This is not, hopefully, the end for this scheme, but rather the start of a fantastic idea that over the next five years will develop and be supported by the local community and theatregoers across the North West.
Runs until 23 November 2018 | Image: