The Last Five Years continues at the Kings Arms, Salford until 13 April.
This Sondheim-esque song cycle, first staged in Chicago in 2001 and revived several times in cities across the globe since, makes great use of the Kings Arms’ bijou performance space. In fact, director James Baker’s staging of The Last Five Years is so intimate that as we are taken through the peaks and troughs of the five-year relationship between Manhattanites Jamie and Cathy you feel like you are intruding on the couple’s private moments.
This is partly down to the cast’s total commitment and utter absorption into their roles, with native New Yorker Ricky Johnston bringing authentic brio to his performance as budding novelist Jamie and recent London School of Musical Theatre graduate Emily Stubbs delivering a believable and heart-breaking vulnerability as Cathy, whose acting career is floundering just as her partner’s literary star is rising.
Jason Robert Brown’s songs for The Last Five Years have a lot riding on them, as with very little spoken dialogue to link them they have to do most of the narrative heavy lifting. Thankfully, as arranged by musical director Tom Chester, the sometimes brackish and discordant, sometimes beautifully melodic tunes provide a varied sonic palette for Jamie and Cathy’s relationship and are performed with an enjoyably ragtail gusto by the five-strong troupe of onstage musicians. And while there are echoes of Broadway and even Disney show tunes in the grander moments, their classic pop structure recall the songwriting mastery of the likes of Elton John, Billy Joel and more contemporary chroniclers of romantic entanglement such as Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright.
The structure of Robert Brown’s piece is a slightly knottier prospect, however. Not only are Cathy and Jamie coming at their relationship from different angles, they are also following a different timeline, with Jamie’s story beginning with courtship and ending with estrangement, while Cathy’s version of events goes through their story in reverse. This original, if slightly gimmicky, approach helps to avoid some of the more obvious pitfalls and tropes of romantic comedy drama, but it actually works counter to the unfolding drama.
Not uncoincidentally, the production takes a giant leap forward when Cathy and Jamie’s stories converge during a proposal and marriage section and they duet to touching effect on the uplifting ‘The Next Ten Minutes’. The out of synch approach does, however, add extra poignancy to the closing double whammy of ‘Goodbye Until Tomorrow’/‘I Could Never Rescue You’, which sees Cathy brimming with hope for the future after their first date together, while Jamie, five years later, is packing his bags and walking out on her after one argument too many.
The reasons for the break-up may seem slight to the non-theatricals among the audience and you might struggle to see what Cathy originally saw in the sure-of-himself Jamie. Also, the downside to keeping the pair separate for most of the production is that we don’t get to witness first-hand what made them tick and then, eventually, fail to tock. But in the precious few moments Johnston and Stubbs share together their chemistry is tangible and both performers are utterly convincing when delivering their, in turns, romantic and caustic musical missives to unseen recipients.