19/06/13 - Theatre review: The Last Five Years

There is a lot of theatre - musical and otherwise - which I don't get to see for various reasons.  The primary ones are not living in either London or New York, along with not having endless reserves of cash and time to play with.  While seeing West End productions is more possible, unfortunately it's not always as feasible as I would want and subsequently I don't catch a lot of shows which I would like to.  However, being on the wrong continent for Broadway is a more difficult stumbling block to overcome.  Even without a whole ocean between me and the shows I want to see, a lot of productions pass me by and I come to regret that.  Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years is one I always thought would remain on my ever-growing 'to-see' list.  Despite being an utterly stunning piece of work, its staging has been scarce.  After a two month off-Broadway run in 2002 and an even shorter revival earlier this year, its following can certainly be described as 'cult'.  Since then, there have been a handful of tiny regional productions both in the States and the UK, and it continues to tug at the heartstrings and inspire its dedicated fans.  And I finally got to see it at Liverpool's Epstein Theatre, after years of listening to the original cast recording.

Normally, I try not to include spoilers in my reviews but I fear that is nigh on impossible for this show.  The Last Five Years is a musical two-hander told almost entirely through song which details the highs and lows of the five year relationship between up-and-coming novelist Jamie and aspiring actress Cathy - the two roles played brilliantly by Stephen Fletcher and Helen Carter.  The plot is unusual in that the audience experiences the story from two perspectives: Jamie's story is chronological while Cathy's begins at the end of their failed marriage...the whole thing starts with the ultimate spoiler.  The happiness we see in the middle of the story is bittersweet due to the prior knowledge that is all due to go sour very soon, and we see hints of the relationship's demise along the way.  The timelines meet briefly for one song, before taking off in their opposite directions once again.  While this structure can be a little confusing (the programme contained a handy timeline for anyone who was struggling to get their head around it), it works by reinforcing the reason for the ultimate failure of this relationship: a lack of communication which Jamie and Cathy are unable to overcome.  Despite the very little interaction between the two performers, their relationship is entirely believable as both bring a balance of heart and vitality to their characters which the show would be lost without.  While this may sound like a rather miserable way to spend an evening, there are moments of wonderful comedy in amongst the ballads - 'Summer in Ohio' and 'A Miracle Would Happen' in particular spring to mind.

The two actors absolutely shine in this production and compliment each other beautifully.  Carter's Cathy is heartfelt and funny with a hint of fragility which is emphasised as she struggles with her floundering acting career, while Jamie's writing takes off with roaring success.  Fletcher does a fantastic job as the arguably less-likable half of the duo, and the audience were swept away by his charismatic and nuanced performance.  The question of 'picking sides' is one which is particularly prevalent to a story of this nature, but I won't be doing that here.  Both characters are realistic and relatable in their flaws, and I leave it to you to see the show and decide who you sympathise with.  The two performances, combined with the onstage three-piece band, perfectly portray Brown's wonderful score and eloquent lyrics, bringing to life songs I know back-to-front and making them feel entirely new.

I actually went to see this with my seventeen-year-old brother who has spent most of his life being dragged to various theatrical performances, with mixed reactions (Avenue Q was a particular favourite, unsurprisingly).  He concluded that, he would "be happy to see it again and it was good".  Glowing praise from a teenage boy.  Sometimes, a production comes along which reminds me of exactly why I want to work in theatres, and The Last Five Years is one of them; like Cathy, I want to be 'A Part of That'.  Cheesy but true.

The Epstein Theatre is a lovely little venue on Hanover Street and I thoroughly recommend this production to anyone looking for a great night out in Liverpool.  There are performances every night this week with a matinee on Saturday and a final early evening show on Sunday 23rd June - you can find more information here.  The tickets are an absolute bargain and despite the immense talent being showcased, the theatre was barely half full.  This production deserves to be playing to a packed house so please go along if you get the chance.  I will definitely be going again before it closes, and I look forward to seeing what else Life in Theatre - a new company to me - has to offer in the future!


Did you catch this production, or will I see you there before it closes?  Are there any shows you particularly regret missing?

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