It is rare that a musical makes its audience think, or addresses life as honestly as Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. Premiered in Chicago in 2001, this relatively new musical is brought wonderfully to life on the Marlborough Theatre’s tiny stage by Fight or Flight Productions. Not that this size of stage is a bad thing; to see a musical in such an intimate setting is a rare and underrated thing, and the cast of five utilise the space wonderfully to best deliver this poignant and personal tale. The set is relatively sparse and minimalistic. What is presented is a musical stripped bare without the glitz or frills so associated with the genre, showing what this mode of storytelling can really do.
Fight or Flight is a young company and so its work is, part by necessity and part by invention, playful with the resources it has. I’ve seen its work before and what always shines through is the level of enthusiasm and commitment to making theatre, and the evident fun they’ve had doing it. Not every note in The Last Five Years is pitch perfect, but after seeing the work this ensemble created one is left wondering whether to replace any member of the cast with seasoned professional musical theatre performers would be the best idea? This musical has two main characters, Cathy and Jamie, played by Harriet Katy Dunn and Tom Reade. These two do extremely well carrying the songs considering they are the only singers throughout, and both attack their parts with vigour.
The two leads are accompanied by a silent group of three, choreographed in a stylised and sleek way that is slightly reminiscent of the style of Bob Fosse. Groups form and disperse around the characters as this ensemble becomes an extension of the characters themselves. This is a wonderful effect in keeping with the minimalist design of the show itself; I thoroughly enjoyed these moments, with the use of puppetry to illustrate Jamie’s imaginative story told in ‘The Schmuel Song’ particularly standing out. I would, however, have preferred a little more character coming from the leads themselves – although I imagine this isn’t the easiest thing to do without destroying the effect of the ensemble.
If every musical note isn’t hit with total perfection, the production hits all the right notes in Jess Barton’s design and direction. The show’s structure is both simple and complex; five years in the relationship between Jamie and Cathy told simultaneously in reverse and chronologically. Cathy starts at the end of the relationship whilst Jamie starts at the beginning. With this in mind the black and white design of the set, carried through to costume choice, becomes cleverer than pure simplicity echoing the framing of a Polaroid photo and bearing associations with the medium of film.
Large white words on black plaques – the key themes drawn out from the narrative – adorn the walls, whilst at the back we have the five years in question and the names Jamie and Cathy. It has to be said that the non-linear structure lends itself more to the medium of film than stage musicals. Cleverly, this production aids the audience in comprehending the passage of time by having members of the ensemble reposition each character’s name in relation to the year they are in at that moment, that point in their story. Cathy and Jamie perform independently for the majority of the show, only meeting in one wedding scene in the middle. This is something I wanted more from in this production, with the characters touching for the first and only time I wanted sparks of electricity and I didn’t get it.
The Last Five Years is the story of two separate lives lived together, in both style and structure it reminds me more of an indie film about love rather than a musical. This is a great thing as this musical is a well-observed look at the reality of human relationships, and not the dressed up unrealistic romance of more conventional musicals. It used to be that this genre offered escapism, but with a number of twnety-first century musicals such as this I think we might be escaping that. Fight or Flight’s production offers everything you want from a musical – great singing, fantastic six-piece band, dance and a love story – and so much more you may not have even known the genre could offer.
The Last Five Years is playing the Marlborough theatre until 13 October. For more information and tickets, see the Marlborough Theatre website.