The Last Five Years – St James Theatre

Samantha Barks as Cathy and Jonathan Bailey as Jamie in THE LAST FIVE YEARS at St James Theatre. Photo Scott Rylander

Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey in The Last Five Years at the St James Theatre, London. Picture: Scott Rylander

The Last Five Years continues at the St James Theatre, London until 3 December.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

The songs from Jason Robert Brown’s high concept musical The Last Five Years have become so popular amongst performers that the show has a tendency to become a collection of audition songs arranged in a whimsically obtuse narrative order.

And it’s not hard to see why: save for one duet, each number is a clearly delimited solo number, with enough variation to provide comedy, romance and tragedy for both male and female voices.

The challenge when putting on this show is to provide enough context such that the musical’s high-concept ‘twist’ – that while the show tells the story of a five-year relationship between New Yorkers Jamie and Cathy, the latter relates her story backwards, from break-up to first meeting – is discernible to the audience. And one would hope that having Jason Robert Brown direct his own musical would ensure that the St James Theatre’s revival provided a definitive staging.

But while performers Jonathan Bailey and Samantha Barks do provide characterisations that are among the best of any duo to take on the show, there is a rather distracting emphasis on a constantly moving set.

Doors, windows and chairs fly in and out with regularity, clunking on and off stage with an almost comical level of clunking noises. The apotheosis of this obsession with set automation is when a rowing boat appears and disappears not once, but twice, for the engagement/marriage number ‘The Next Ten Minutes’.

It’s a shame that the set is so distracting, for Bailey and Barks are more than capable of setting the scene for each number without the need for such fripperies.

At the start of the show – as Barks’ Cathy laments the failure of her marriage in ‘Still Hurting’, while Bailey is exuberant about his new girlfriend in ‘Shiksa Goddess’ – she seems to be the stronger singer of the pair, while he is the stronger actor. And while that feeling never quite goes away, over the show’s 90 minute running time each performer gains strength to the point where both give fully rounded performances.

Bailey in particular is adept at finding comic flourishes to play, making his philandering author character far more believably likeable. Both his and Barks’ characters are still self-absorbed millennials, but the charms of each character to each other are mirrored in their charms to the audience.

And that may be the true benefit to having Jason Robert Brown direct this show, which famously was inspired by the failure of his own relationship.

Regardless of whether the finished product is truly autobiographical, Brown is able to bring out what may be the definitive versions of these two characters.

Scott Matthewman

Tickets for The Last Five Years are available HERE.

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