THEATRE REVIEW: The Last Five Years, St James Theatre

running until 3 December

Jason Robert Brown’s two-hander musical is known for its unique structural twist: it’s the story of a relationship seen from both the man and woman’s perspective, but each travels a different way through their timeline, only meeting briefly in the middle for one duet (‘The Next Ten Minutes’). As Jamie travels forwards, from the first dates to the end of their marriage, Cathy travels backwards – from last goodbye to first kiss.

Samantha Barks as Cathy. Photo: Scott Rylander
Samantha Barks as Cathy. Photo: Scott Rylander

Directed by Brown himself, the production brings together experienced (yet still only 26!) musical theatre star Samantha Barks, of I’d Do Anything and Les Misérables fame, and actor Jonathan Bailey, best known for his work in straight dramas at the National Theatre and on the small screen. Having always admired his performances, it’s interesting to see Bailey branch out into musical theatre. While his voice sounds a little Disneyfied at times, and the bigger notes feel forced, overall it’s a solid performance and his comic timing is absolutely spot-on in numbers such as ‘Moving Too Fast’ and ‘The Schmuel Song’. Barks has a similar chance to show off her comedy chops in ‘A Summer In Ohio’, as she writes home to Jamie with tales of her summer acting job and her eccentric colleagues and flatmates. In more poignant numbers, Barks is predictably impressive in her vocal performance with highlights including opener ‘Still Hurting’ and ‘See, I’m Smiling’.

The timeline trick is what elevates this song cycle; without it, it’s a slightly humdrum story of a failed romance. The plot was based on Brown’s own relationships with his ex-wife Theresa O’Neill – so much so that she threatened legal action on the grounds it was too close to reality – and it certainly has its touching moments. Yet there is something too middle-of-the-road about the two characters; while I don’t necessarily need high drama in every show I see, there needs to be something meatier to hold our attention throughout.

Jonathan Bailey as Jamie. Photo: Scott Rylander
Jonathan Bailey as Jamie. Photo: Scott Rylander

If the drama is underplayed, the set is overwrought with too many fussy details that mean an almost constant flow of rather shaky set pieces being moved on and off, and unnecessary digital screens that add nothing (this is a bugbear of mine – please designers, only use digital work if it really enhances the show, not just to prove that you can!). Indeed, if the design had been simpler, perhaps the emotion and heart of the piece would have shone through more strongly with fewer distractions. However, the positioning of the orchestra on a mezzanine above the action works well and it’s a delight to have the talented live band in view.

This production certainly has a few weaknesses then. Yet it’s still an enjoyable evening’s theatre and Bailey and Barks do a great job, both exhibiting their characters’ warmth and likeability alongside their flaws. Jamie in particular is a tricky part to negotiate in this instance, as he is shown in a worse light (intriguing when you remember Brown based this on his own experiences) and both the performance and direction do well at not piling all the blame on him, despite his actions.

This was a pleasant if not earth-shattering introduction to a show I hadn’t seen before, and while I might not be rushing back to the St James for now, I’ll certainly look out for more musical performances by Barks and Bailey soon.

Click here for more information.

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