The Last Five Years – Old Joint Stock, Birmingham

Book, Music and Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown

Director: Karl Steele

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

The Last Five Years has now been around almost twenty years since its première in Chicago in 2001. Moving off-Broadway, it garnered numerous awards. While the story it tells is a path relatively well-trod, its methodology isn’t.

Jamie is an aspiring novelist; Cathy aspires to be an actress. They meet and fall in love, later moving in together and marrying. But while Jamie gets the success he covets, Cathy continues to struggle. The difference in their orbits and the expectations each has of the other drive a wedge between them and ultimately, five years after they first met, the relationship is over.

What sets The Last Five Years apart from other, potentially similar, shows is its structure. Firstly, each protagonist tells their side of the story largely independently in a series of musical soliloquies, a device that allows the innermost feelings of each to be exposed at each stage: the unbridled optimism when meeting, the euphoria of love, growing disenchantment, and bitterness and disappointment as the relationship finally fails. Secondly, while Jamie’s series of vignettes are presented in chronological order, Cathy’s move in reverse. This explains why they rarely interact except in the middle of the piece when they sing a duet as they marry.

This non-linear narrative presents its own challenges to the audience. From the off we know the ultimate outcome: the very first song, Still Hurting, sees Cathy receive a note from Jamie telling her it’s all over; a shock even though she knew this day was coming. But we won’t see both sides of the story that leads up to this point until the show is almost over and we have seen both journeys. It’s difficult at the outset to mentally cast Jamie as anything but the villain: but if that is the case, who is this idealistic youngster home from a first date with a goofy grin on his face: the cat who got the cream?

In Jason Robert Brown’s writing, each character inhabits their own timeline exclusively, meaning we occasionally see flashes from the other that contrast with the action in the stage’s present: for example, even as Cathy sings, See I’m Smiling as she must realise the end is nigh, the younger Jamie is excitedly on the phone to his agent about the success of his first book; a little later Jamie’s good fortune, as presented in Moving Too Fast, is contrasted by the older Cathy’s discussion with her agent who seems uncaring. In this staging, Director Karl Steele has chosen to allow the other character some limited interaction: so when Cathy is ostensibly writing to Jamie about her life in Ohio while he is among New York’s bright lights, Steel has her Skyping him with his face clearly on screen reacting to her words. While this mitigates some of the episodic aspects, it can lead to some confusion as to which timeline each character is inhabiting at times.

Similarly, the largely empty set that allows us to move with ease between locations doesn’t always signal exactly where we are geographically, so some clues about where we are in the story slip by.

Laura Poyner as Cathy delivers an emotional tour-de-force. Hitting the ground running, she provides a memorable and poignant hit in the opening number; such is the power of this performance that it is difficult to see the joy she feels later in the show and earlier in the relationship; indeed, her last song, Goodbye Until Tomorrow,  when she is looking forward to seeing more of Jamie after a first date is almost painful juxtaposed as it is with Jamie finishing his note and saying simply, ‘Goodbye’. George Stuart is a versatile actor, providing the puppy-dog exuberance of youth and the change as he becomes disenchanted effectively. Both are accomplished singers and deliverers of songs; together, they work well to tell Cathy and Jamie’s story.

Of course, any musical needs music and this is provided by an onstage and, for some reason apparently caged, three-piece band – piano, violin and cello – under the musical direction of Ian Stephenson. They provide a solid and varied backdrop to the action with plenty of light and shade in the playing, supporting the actors’ emotional journeys effectively.

So a show not without flaws, but a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece nonetheless; Poyner and Stuart do ensure that each character is seen in the round with both positive and negative of their characters displayed. This production is certainly worth taking the time to catch.

Runs until 18 February 2018 | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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