The Last Five Years @ Menier Chocolate Factory, London

cast list
Lara Pulver
Damian Humbley

directed by
Matthew White
Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle, which charts a couple’s turbulent five year relationship from its beginning to its end, has developed something of a cult following since it was first produced in the US, with copies of the soundtrack highly prized by fans of musical theatre.

This is the first London production of this quirky, structurally inventive two-hander. While Jamie tells the story of his blossoming romance with “Shiksa Goddess” Cathy, she starts to describe events from the end of their relationship, tearful and empty, and works back towards their first date. It’s a nice device that allows for some emotive juxtaposition between his grinning optimism and her growing unhappiness (and vice versa in the latter half of the show).

Brown’s intelligent lyrics paint a believable picture of the constantly shifting dynamics between the couple, especially as Jamie’s career as a writer takes off while Cathy’s acting career stalls. The Last Five Years contains its fair share of touching moments – when Jamie writes Cathy a Christmas story urging her to have faith in herself or when Cathy spends the summer touring Ohio, missing her husband – but because the nature of the show prevents the characters from interacting, except during the wedding scene that occurs midway through the production, it’s often difficult to connect emotionally with their plight.

Events also seem rather skewed towards Jamie’s perspective, and Cathy’s issues are sometimes made to seem rather trivial as a result. By making this a two hander, all outside influences on the relationship – friends, family and the subject of their different cultural backgrounds, touched on at an early point in the show but not developed – are overlooked and the failure of their marriage falls rather too squarely at Cathy’s feet.

Lara Pulver and Damian Humbley are both excellent as the couple in question, pulling off some technically demanding numbers and displaying as much chemistry as the material allows for; and director Matthew White keeps things simple, staging events around a central bed (that at one point doubles as a boat). The Last Five Years is a smart, entertaining piece of theatre, for those who like their musicals to engage their brains as well as their emotions. It’s very, very New York, which to my mind is never a bad thing, but while it’s easy to admire its lyrical intricacy and musical richness, it lacked something vital at its heart – it was difficult to get truly caught up in their world.

Having produced Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…Boom! and Sondheim’s Sunday In The Park With George (now at Wyndham’s in the West End) the Menier is starting to gain a reputation for staging exciting musicals that are small in scale but big in ambition, but it really needs to sort out its air conditioning if it’s going to continue to put on shows in the summer months. Despite the handheld fans distributed on the door, it was sauna-like in the theatre and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were still traces of Doogie Howser’s sweat on the walls from last summer when conditions were similarly sweltering.

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