The Last Five Years continues at the Naughton Studio, Lyric Theatre, Belfast until4 July.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
The Irish premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s touching two-hander The Last Five Years finds Belfast’s Blunt Fringe Productions measurably growing in confidence in a compact but altogether captivating production by director Stephen Whitson.
Founded in late 2013, the company’s first full production follows two well-received ‘songbook’ compendiums – The World Goes ’Round, gleefully delving into the Kander and Ebb catalogue, and a deliciously knowing Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris – both of which were also seen in the accommodating Naughton Studio of Belfast’s Lyric Theatre.
First staged in Chicago in 2001 (transferring to Off-Broadway the following year and revived in 2013) The Last Five Years proves a characteristically canny choice by the company’s increasingly impressive producing duo of Claire Murray and Rachel Logan-Fee. Neatly coinciding with the DVD release of the Hollywood film version, it demonstrates a wholly persuasive flexing of the company’s fast-developing creative muscles.
A bittersweet tale of two young lovers newly fallen out of love ruefully raking over the ashes of their all too short marriage, it’s a piece marked by innocence, intoxication and an initial delirium that all too soon turns to disenchantment, disappointment and despondency. Those contrary qualities are all to the fore in a production distinguished by the nuanced performances of Fra Fee and Amy Lennox (stepping in at late notice for an indisposed Laura Tebbutt and soon to be seen in the UK premiere of Kinky Boots) and by the fingertip sensitivity of Whitson’s direction.
Whitson could just as easily have claimed a choreographer’s credit, so deftly does he weave together the two time-displaced narrative strands: Lennox’s struggling actress Cathy looking back on what was and painfully contemplating what might have been, Fee’s aspiring novelist Jamie working forward from first blissful encounter to final, bitter separation.
Both performers deal with the spatial sleight of hand with aplomb – despite being on stage together virtually throughout, they meet only once in shared time in the sweetly blissful ‘The Next Ten Minutes’. Lennox is especially affecting as the more obviously emotional of the two, the rather soupy love song ‘When You Come Home to Me’ delivered with becoming fragile sincerity, her revisiting of failed auditions in ‘I Can Do Better Than That’ a bravura display of self-deprecating front-cloth comedy.
Wrestling with youthful confusion between passion and intellect, Fee’s tousled-haired, Heathcliff-lookalike novelist on the up is a suitably tortured figure. The more physical performance of the two, he occasionally suffers from lapses of breath control but is delightfully spiky in the knockabout ‘Shiksa Goddess’, touchingly tender in the Billy Joel-like ‘If I Didn’t Believe in You’.
A beautifully blended five-piece band adroitly uses the darker, keening timbres of violin and cello to lend lush, orchestral textures to piano, guitar and bass.
Not a wholly perfect production (the company’s slender resources relegating set design to a minimalism that is functional but offers little else) but The Last Five Years confirms Blunt Fringe as one of the most innovative, intelligent and intriguing companies to emerge in Northern Ireland in recent years. It bodes more than well for Sondheim’s Putting it Together from them later this year.