Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years review at St James Theatre – ‘poignant’
In the summer of 2015 the St James Theatre offered a brilliant showcase to composer Jason Robert Brown by reviving his New York calling card, the 1995 song cycle Songs for a New World. Now the theatre presents his second, and far more personally painful and rueful song cycle musical The Last Five Years, and it provides another chance to bask in some really fine songs, this time more evocatively linked with a through-line story.
This one act, two actor chamber musical tells of the rise and fall of a relationship between a 20-something couple – an aspiring actress and a budding novelist. But there’s no need for a spoiler alert, because the show is formally adventurous in structure as it tells their stories from the point of each character travelling in opposite directions – her story goes backwards from the end of the relationship, while his moves forward in time from their first meeting. It is only briefly, in the middle of the show, that their stories cross over and they appear in the same scene – when they get married.
It’s a slightly tricky way of telling a fairly conventional story, and Brown’s own production overburdens it with set pieces that are constantly rolling on and off the stage to create different locations. Yet musically it alternately soars and wounds, with two fantastically committed actors turning each song into a masterclass of storytelling.
Samantha Barks, already known for such musicals as Les Miserables (in the West End and on screen), lends powerful vocals to I Can Do Better Than That and a delightful comic spirit to A Summer in Ohio, while Jonathan Bailey packs a real vocal surprise with his haunting renditions of If I Didn’t Believe in You and Nobody Needs to Know.