Review - The Last Five Years (St James Theatre)

The Last Five Years is perhaps composer Jason Robert Brown's most famous and beloved song cycle musical, ever since its 2001 off-Broadway run was immortalised on a cast album featuring Sherie Rene Scott and Norbert Leo Butz, songs such as Summer In Ohio and Moving Too Fast have been stalwart numbers in auditions and concerts all over the world. The musical's popularity was further bolstered in 2015 when Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick starred in a movie adaptation. As far as contemporary musical theatre goes, The Last Five Years is a must-see. 

Photo Credit - Scott Rylander 
The story charts the doomed relationship between successful young author Jamie and aspiring actress Cathy, and uses a unique structure to embellish the tale. While Jamie's scenes are told in chronological order, the audience first witnesses Cathy reflecting on the end of the couple's marriage after their 5 year long relationship. This clever structure reminds audiences that for each happy or triumphant moment there is an undercurrent of sadness and futility.  

If the opening line of The Last Five Years' wasn't 'Jamie is over and Jamie is gone' then the form would still immediately highlight the incongruity of the relationship, as the only time Cathy and Jamie share the stage is during their wedding day. At all other times they are completely separate from each other, thus constantly reminding the audience of the ways in which they are missing each others signs, and neglecting one another in order to follow their own personal ambitions and whims. 

Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey are exemplary in their roles as young lovers Cathy and Jamie. Barks is an engaging performer whose powerful and soaring voice effortlessly navigates Cathy's belty numbers such as I Can Do Better Than That and Climbing Uphill. meanwhile she brings a touching vulnerability to quieter moments and punctuates moments of silence with long lovelorn looks.

While Barks' Cathy is rather restrained, Jonathan Bailey bursts into his earlier scenes with boundless energy and an adorkable lovableness. He attacks many of his numbers in a controlled frenzy, puts on silly voices, emotes, dances and laughs with abandon, and is evidently the polar opposite of his sweet, witty yet reserved other half. Although his voice is not exactly that of a typical leading man's he injects songs with charm, and wins over Cathy (and the audience) through goofy numbers such as The Schmuel Song. It is heartbreaking therefore, to see his sleazy side develop, and the last couple of numbers are emotionally tiring tearjerkers as a result. In particular, the slow, languishing Nobody Needs To Know signals an irrefutably heart stopping revelation. The Last Five Years is an ultimately dispiriting musical, which Barks and Bailey navigate faultlessly from joyous to painful or vice versa, proving themselves pitch perfect leads. 

Nowhere is this perfection clearer than in the final scene, wherein Cathy tells Jamie Goodbye Until Tomorrow, while Jamie sadly reflects on the shortcomings of the pair's love in I Could Never Rescue You. Although the audiences has been privy to the entire relationship from beginning to end, there is still something in the way Cathy dreamily sings about her hopes for a future with her new love which gives the audience a sense of hope that maybe things will turn out differently, however much the inevitability of their incompatibility has already been established. It is therefore gut wrenching to see a rare moment of connection between characters in the musical's final moments, and there is no denying the fact that they are well and truly over. 

The musical battles with a number of universal emotions and ideas, such as ambition, rejection, longing and self doubt, which only serves to make each moment all the more affecting. Even more notable is the role gender plays within the piece, the young and ambitious man is rewarded with success and reaps the rewards of his skills, meanwhile the woman is subjected to cattle call auditions, where she is judged first and foremost on her age and appearance rather than her talent, and is chiefly concerned with avoiding becoming a housewife, and haunted by the idea that she may never be able to have the career she always dreamed of. The fact that this issue remains as relevant today as ever is extremely disheartening. For this reason it is impossible not to relate at least one of the characters at some point or another, and the intimacy of the two-hander in such a cosy space really helps to drive the poignancy home. 

The Last Five Years is an intimate story, and the St James Theatre is the perfect London venue to stage it at. That being said, the production is a little bit busy at times, and features lots of moving pieces, and somewhat superfluous screens, used only to give the audience an indication of location. The beauty of The Last Five Years is in its simplicity and therefore at times the production does feel a little bit fussy, however, for the most part the minimal sets and props are of no consequence.

The fact that composer Jason Robert Brown is the director of this production is very interesting for several reasons, not least because The Last Five Years contains some semi-autobiographical elements. Famously Brown based Jamie off of himself, and therefore his direction of this cast is also an exciting insight into the way in which the character was intended to be played. Despite this, it it Jamie who ends up coming off worse in the end, while Cathy remains a far more sympathetic character. That being said, Jonathan Bailey does his best to try and inject some likability into his older Jamie, and plays later scenes much less stony faced and cold than is often seen in productions of this musical. 

The Last Five Years is a musical which every musical theatre fan should see. Not only is it a modern standard, its influence can also be seen in countless new musicals today. With such an impressive cast, and a director who knows the piece better than anyone else, this is an unmissable production which will resonate on some level with everyone! 

The Last Five Years plays at London's St James Theatre until 3rd December. For more information and to book tickets, visit the St James Theatre website.