Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS at the St James Theatre

The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown has been in my top ten favourite musicals of all time for years now so when I saw that this new off-West End production was coming in - directed by none other than Robert Brown himself - I actually thought all of my dreams had come true. My feelings after leaving the theatre weren't what I was expecting though and I've felt guilty about them ever since...

The show only ever features two actors for the entire show and as a result, the one thing that has to work on stage is their passion and chemistry; the staging is minimal as well so all of the focus is on the actors' performances. Despite this, I feel like the one thing that this revival lacked was any sort of passion at all. At times when Samantha Barks sang, I found myself aimlessly looking around the room and forgetting she was even there, while Jonathan Bailey's passion was (at times) so misplaced and forced that it made me cringe. I don't think it says anything about them as actors though for sure, but in a really weird way, I just don't think my Last Five Years lines up with Jason Robert Brown's.

Samantha Barks as Cathy Hyatt in The Last Five Years, playing at the St James Theatre thru Dec 3rd

This is something I thought about when I was on my train ride home. I started to wonder why I didn't like this version of The Last Five Years so much when it was directed and staged by the show's creator and writer: surely this means I'd like it if I like the piece? But then it hit me: every fan of The Last Five Years sees the show differently in their heads when they listen to the score. My vision of Cathy and her personality is completely different to my friend Emma's (who also saw the show on Friday with our friend Verity and absolutely loved it), while her vision of Jamie is surely different to mine in my head. It made me realise how subjective this very minimalist and raw musical is and that, despite me not enjoying this production, it's just one of those shows where you need to go and see it for yourself to make up your opinion. In a similar way, I'm a massive fan of  the Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan-led movie adaptation of the show, while almost every other mega-fan seems to think that it's utter tosh.

Other than my small worries about misplaced (or lack of) passion from their performances, both Barks and Bailey seemed to work well together as the couple. I've seen Samantha Barks in so many shows and films now that her performance abilities are unquestionably fantastic to me; her voice is beautiful so hearing her take on this iconic score in such a bold way is wonderful. Her better performances are definitely her more comedic ones on this occasion like Summer In Ohio and A Part of That, while performances of songs like Still Hurting just felt slightly overdone and didn't have that kind of heartache to them that Barks manages to give sometimes, like her performance of On My Own in the Les Miz movie. Jonathan Bailey was similar in that respect and at times, he was so charmingly funny that I began to wonder how on Earth I'd end up disliking him by the end of the piece. His performances of songs like The Schmuel Song and A Miracle Would Happen did have me laughing, but songs like If I Didn't Believe in You and Nobody Needs to Know just felt forcibly emotional and at times, it totally detracted from the moment.

Jonathan Bailey as Jamie Wellerstein in The Last Five Years

Again, these creative decisions aren't all to blame on the actors as it's Robert Brown's direction that had a knock on effect on them. He really has made an effort to strip the show down to such a bare framework of a show that it does feel like all of the heart has been stripped from it as well. The beauty of the show isn't necessarily that the two actors don't interact with one another apart from in The Next Ten Minutes as a mark of symbolism for their very different lifestyles that ultimately destroyed their marriage. I think the beauty of the show is in the relationship that the two characters share so the fact that one actor is always singing their solo song to an invisible person or - even more weirdly - to the audience, totally baffles me. I was surprised that the actors weren't asked to commit to singing the song to either an invisible person the whole time or the audience the whole time, but instead seemed to alternate between the two in the space of the same song. It got confusing and all in all it got me wondering why on Earth they didn't just get the other actor to stand there and act along with it; I can understand why the artistic decision was made, but I just didn't enjoy it very much.

Like I said before, I urge you to go and see this production if you are a fan of the show. I'm gutted that I wasn't blown away by seeing the show in the way it was originally intended, but I would love to know what everyone else seems to think of it in comparison. It's always the case but in this situation more than any other, my opinion may completely differ to yours and this show is so subjective that it could well be your idea of how the show should ideally be presented.

The Last Five Years runs at the St James Theatre until December 3rd. Tickets available here.

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