The Last Five Years continues at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 11 March.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle The Last Five Years is the story of the breakdown of a relationship, starting at the end. So we first meet Cathy reading Jamie’s goodbye letter, before flashing back to the very beginning, just after they have met, with Jamie exalting in her as his “shiksa princess” and how she’s going to break his Jewish mother’s heart.
It’s a deceptively simple premise, handled deftly in this production at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre, with its simple set and clear, clever lighting taking us through the leaps from end to beginning to middle and back again.
This is a show that lives and dies by its casting and Chris Cowley and Katie Birtill are more than up to the challenge of carrying the whole enterprise on their shoulders.
Birtill has a sweet, clear tone, superb timing and handles the subtleties of her character with aplomb. Catherine could seem like a bit of a shrew in the wrong hands, but here she’s heartbreakingly sympathetic.
Cowley is a competent Jamie; there are a few wobbles in accent early on, but they soon settle down. The young Jamie, newly in love and in the first flush of literary success, is a boisterous, Tigger-ish character, barely contained by the stage as he leaps and bounces, but Cowley’s real triumph comes as older Jamie’s affair is revealed.
Tender, brutish, desperate, aggressive – at one point directly addressing the audience, defiant – Cowley cycles through complex emotions with superb singing and a performance that teases sympathy out of caddish, awful behaviour.
Cathy is left behind, her middling musical theatre career taking her out on provincial summer tours, never coming near the stratospheric success of her novelist husband. We need to feel for Cathy or the show is nothing; Birtill finds every nuance in her, makes her funny, heartbroken, bored, worried, angry – a complete and complex human being. Her performance is luminescent with honesty, desperation and love.
The New Wolsey is almost the perfect space for The Last Five Years; it’s surprisingly intimate for a 400-seater, while giving the show room to breathe. Excellent direction from Peter Rowe and movement direction from Francesca Jaynes keep the action clear and dynamic.
There are a few bum notes: the Phantom of the Opera-esque boat ride before and after the wedding and the ‘real’ car brought on for a drive back to Cathy’s hometown to meet the parents are jarringly at odds with James Perkins’ sparse, well-thought-out set. Matt Haskins’ lighting is superbly effective, guiding us through the time shifts with ease.
The elegant band, under tight musical direction from Caroline Humphris, are placed on a balcony above the stage, in sight at all times. It handles the score – light, swinging and jazzy for the most part – easily with cello (David Bucknall), bass (Chris Kelly), guitar (Daniel Vildosola) and violin (Henry Salmon), plus piano from Humphris.
I’m not sure that The Last Five Years is Jason Robert Brown’s best work; it’s sometimes rather slight, often repetitive and occasionally infuriating. But this is a top-class production, with outstanding performances which bring out the absolute best in it. Running at 90 minutes with no interval, it’s short and bittersweet.