Jason Robert Brown's poignant, semi-autobiographical journey through a relationship, from heady first meeting to marriage and then downhill to disillusion and divorce, is an intimate chamber piece with just two protagonists: Cathy and Jamie. She is a struggling actress, he is a young Jewish writer on the cusp of success.
The musical's remarkable USP is that Cathy and Jamie travel through time in opposite directions. She begins with the final break up and ends with the delicious moment of meeting – with all the excitement of possibility still ahead. He starts off full of the enticing novelty of his "Shiksa goddess" (shiksa being slang for non-Jewish girl) after all those nice, safe and suitable Jewish girls.
Jonathan Bailey and Samantha Barks seize the opportunities offered by this clever structure. Brown turns a fine lyric – “Jamie arrived at the end of the line / Jamie's convinced that the problems are mine / Jamie is probably feeling just fine and I'm still hurting” – and his music is both lush and nuanced. The show succeeds brilliantly in demonstrating the ultimate isolation of its protagonists, just because the structure dictates that they must spend most of its duration singing alone on stage to an imaginary partner.
It's an extraordinary relief when, at what is really the show’s climax half way through, they do at last have a duet of transcendent joy as he proposes and she accepts. I was left longing for more shared stage time and song. True the show ends with both on stage singing, not together, but as far apart as is possible to be. The audience is all too aware that the youth and optimism with which Barks shimmers is destined to have its shine dulled by Jamie's unthinking neglect. He climbs the slippery pole to success and has his head turned by the adoration of other women, while she remains earthbound, her career never taking off.
It's heartbreaking to watch Barks' beautifully realised account of Cathy unfolding like a flower in sunlight as she goes back to the time when she was full of hope. And Bailey is not afraid to be unsympathetic as success turns his head and he leaves his young wife at home for yet another showbiz party.
Brown gets away with directing himself, though it would have been interesting to see what an outside director makes of the piece. Derek McLane's design of window frames above a bare stage lit with squares of lights suggests New York apartment buildings and is supplemented sometimes more/sometimes less effectively by truck stages wheeled on and off. It seems a large empty space for just two performers at times; though the space above and behind the window frames is wonderfully filled by the glorious band – the plangent strings of two cellos, violin, guitar and bass, with MD Torquil Munro's piano, but no percussion in Brown's own orchestrations. And costume designer Gabriella Slade provides Miss Barks with a fabulous succession of entirely appropriate outfits for every stage of this sad little dissection of a relationship. An affecting evening.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Scott Rylander
The Last Five Years runs until Saturday 3 December, Monday to Saturday 7.30pm, Thursday & Saturday 2.30pm, £10-£59.50, at St James Theatre,12 Palace St, SW1E 5JA; 0844 264 2140. www.stjamestheatre.co.uk