I arrived at the Michael Pilch last Wednesday at 7:30pm in anticipation of some musical theatre. I was rather puzzled when, half an hour into The Last Five Years, not a note had yet been sung, but dutifully persevered with my note-taking. As it happened, my blunder was fortuitous, because the play I did see was brilliant – but it was not, as I had conjectured, a hyper-experimental deconstructed version of the aforementioned musical.
The real Last Five Years, which I successfully saw this evening, is an all-singing, all-American romp, and a rollercoaster of passion and wit. It takes us on a journey through the five-year relationship between Cathy (Jemimah Taylor) and Jamie (Jonny Danciger), replete with syrupy romance and the turbulence that attends the frustration of career setbacks and wandering eyes. Jason Robert Brown’s score follows a strange – and slightly gimmicky – chronology, in which the story is told via two parallel trajectories: Johny’s side of things goes forwards and meanwhile Cathy’s travels back. Each ‘up’ is chased by a ‘down’: a failed audition for Cathy or Jamie’s one-night-stand with another woman (how we wanted to give him a good slap…).
Nonetheless, the two actors traversed this oscillation with gusto; it is testament to the strength of their voices that energy did not wane for a moment. Taylor’s voice was exquisite, and she livened the score with astonishing range and character. Many of Danciger’s songs were a real mouthful, but he peppered them skilfully with bouncing inflection to draw out some of the funniest lines (a Donald Trump reference was particularly enjoyed).
Just as it was about to get a little too cliché, the audience was treated to a jocular episode of dancing, miming and clowning, in which Danciger hilariously told the tale (through song) of the tailor ‘Schmuel’, accompanied by Evelyn Earl’s splendid dance and mime. Later on, Olivia Charley performed a beautiful lyrical dance while Danciger bemoaned his transgression with the woman who wasn’t his wife. The music and dancing was accompanied throughout by a wonderful band led by Leo Munby (Lizzie Arnold, Ben Simon, Georgina Lloyd-Owen and Charlie Kind). The finest piece of interaction between actors and band came with Cathy’s hilarious ‘audition’ song, in which the horror of performing in front of an uninterested panel was laid bare. Her nod to the actual pianist elicited a well-deserved chuckle.
The production was wonderfully directed by Charlotte Vickers and deftly executed by cast and musicians alike. The choice of a thrust stage was clever and lent the performance an intimacy that most musicals lack. Attentive direction meant that each of the main actors was able to carry the story despite the marked absence of the other: it takes great skill to depict a tumultuous argument without an other half to respond. In fact, this added a new and interesting dimension, and rendered those moments when the two were together particularly piquant.