The Last Five Years at the St James TheatreCultureTheatre
The penultimate production at the St James Theatre before it becomes the enigmatic The Other Place in the New Year, The Last Five Years sees Samantha Banks’s Cathy and Jonathan Bailey’s James sing their relationship in opposite directions as success (or lack thereof) begins to drive a wedge between the pair.
While the concept is intriguing on paper, in execution it neuters the narrative. Travelling both backwards and forwards through the relationship not only robs the story of drama, but prevents the kind of investment in the lovers required to overlook the lack of momentum. It doesn’t help that James Robert Brown, who wrote the play back in 2001 and directs this revival, paints in broad strokes and big time jumps that obscure the sense of progression and leave little room for romantic specificities to arise. Combine this with the lack of interaction between the two leads and it becomes difficult to care about the (dis)integration that is being presented. Difficult, however, but not impossible. For the flaws in The Last Five Years are just about papered over by Bailey and Banks, who are outstanding despite being lumbered with the unenviable task of simulating chemistry with a partner who is almost always off stage.
The obnoxiousness of James’s unlikely literary rise, with its clunky references to John Updike and The New Yorker, makes it difficult to empathise with him by the time he catches up to where his wife’s narrative begins. Yet this doesn’t stop Bailey from eking out every bit of humour in the likes of Moving too Fast and The Schmuel Song. Cathy’s small town actress struggles, on the other hand, provide The Last Five Years with its most memorable moments: A Summer in Ohio and Climbing Uphill are arguably the best the show has to offer, each industry-skewing number providing ample opportunity for Banks’s wit and physical comedy to shine alongside her faultless voice.
At times, it is hard to shake the feeling one is watching a concert version of a musical rather than a fully staged production – a feeling amplified by a set design that, when it works, makes the songs appear like fading memories but, when it doesn’t, looks like a bare bones version of the set from Friends. Yet a series of pleasingly Broadway-esque rom-com nuggets, and the utterly charming performances of Bailey and Banks, mean The Last Five Years’ temporal troubles are (largely) washed away by the time the lovers simultaneously say hello and goodbye.
The Last Five Years is at the St James Theatre from 2nd November to 3rd December 2016. Book your tickets here.