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The Last Five Years – The Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham

Book, Music and Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown

Musical Director: Benjamin Grey

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

The Last Five Years - The Old Joint Stock Theatre, BirminghamA young couple, he an aspiring writer, she a struggling actress, meet, fall in love, marry, drift apart and separate. Straightforward Boy-Meets-Girl stuff, it seems. What sets Jason Robert Brown’s show apart is the rawness that comes from its highly personal, semi-autobiographical nature, drawing heavily on his relationship with Theresa O’Neill – one song had to be rewritten after O’Neill complained that the musical portrayed their relationship too closely in order to separate the character of his protagonist Cathy and O’Neill.

However, this show is unusual in another, more fundamental way in the way it deals with chronology. It’s told as a series of sung monologues by each character at key points in the relationship – the only point in which the two interact on stage is their wedding, halfway through. But, more intriguingly, Jamie’s story is told in chronological order, starting just after they meet in 2000, through the seasons to their wedding in 2002, then on to the circumstances of the marriage’s failure in 2005; Cathy’s story is in reverse order, so she begins at the relationship’s end, working backwards, past the wedding to the youthful excitement of new love. This allows the audience an insight as the stories piece themselves together, gradually gaining more understanding with the benefit and irony each time of already knowing the other party’s experience.

The intimate atmosphere of the Old Joint Stock’s theatre is ideal for this introspective production. The set is simple, but effective. A grand piano sits centre stage and provides all the music, played superbly by Ian Stephenson. Around this, painted on the floor is a clock face, reminding us of the central part that time takes in the tale. Either side are simple tables representing the locations where Jamie and Cathy find themselves.

The stand out star of the show is Chloe Jean as Cathy. Jean positively inhabits the character and is consequently totally believable. Her singing is stupendous, filling each and every note with emotion and meaning. She acts with her entire body, understated but hugely affecting: Jean’s performance is a masterclass in the method. Karl Steele as Jamie is a skilled singer, but his acting is that of a journeyman: competent rather than inspirational. Interestingly, the two best songs for me relate to the same point in the relationship, though different times in the actual production. Both occur some time after the wedding when they are beginning to drift apart and leading somewhat separate lives because of their respective careers.

In ‘I’m A Part Of That’, Cathy sings of her love for Jamie, the pride she feels at being part of his life and creative process, despite his ignoring her for his increasingly successful writing; at the same chronological point, Jamie sings ‘If I Didn’t Believe In You’, in which he is harsh – asking why he should not embrace success simply because her career is failing, but also promising that he does, indeed, believe in her. These songs indicate the turning point in their relationship and after this there is really no going back: Jamie succumbs to the temptation coming his way and is blind to Cathy’s attempts to fix the problems.

So overall, this is a great night out, intellectually and emotionally challenging and, indeed, draining for performers and audience alike; well worth catching before it closes.

Runs until 9th February 2014

 

Book, Music and Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown Musical Director: Benjamin Grey Reviewer: Selwyn Knight A young couple, he an aspiring writer, she a struggling actress, meet, fall in love, marry, drift apart and separate. Straightforward Boy-Meets-Girl stuff, it seems. What sets Jason Robert Brown’s show apart is the rawness that comes from its highly personal, semi-autobiographical nature, drawing heavily on his relationship with Theresa O’Neill – one song had to be rewritten after O’Neill complained that the musical portrayed their relationship too closely in order to separate the character of his protagonist Cathy and O’Neill. However, this show is unusual…

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