Review – The Last Five Years

October 7, 2011 | By More

★★★☆☆       Flying start

Scottish Storytelling Centre: October 2011
Review by Thom Dibdin

The fledgling Green Room production company has got off to a flying start with this elegantly staged production of Jason Robert Brown’s modern musical, The Last Five Years.

Telling the five year relationship between rising young novelist Jamie and struggling young actress Cathy, the musical transcends the usual boy-meets-girl formula involving a spot of minor jeopardy followed by a big happy ever-after. Instead it tells of a failed relationship, possibly doomed from the outset.

Brown’s neat trick is a story arc which works from both ends – telling Jamie’s story chronologically and Cathy’s in reverse chronology. Which at least ensures a bittersweet, as opposed to a bitter, finish to the piece as ends with Cathy hopelessly in love at the start of the relationship.

It does demand a clarifying moment at the outset, however, or a nimbleness of mind from the casual viewer who isn’t au fait with the plot device. A moment which director Michael Richardson doesn’t quite achieve for the more casual of observers. Although, to be fair, the basic fault lies in the book and lyrics.

There’s no lack of clarity from the performers. Sarah Haddeth starts off all cowed and static in her opening number, I’m Still Hurting. So much so, that you want to tell this frail young thing to get up and belt out the number as if she were the biggest soul singer in all the world.

It is this level of engagement with her character throughout which makes Haddeth’s performance so endearing. In numbers such as the lovely See I’m Smiling where she is reacting to Jamie, she tells the whole scene (which she performs alone) through her face as she finds out that he isn’t merely going to go off to a party on her birthday, but won’t be coming home afterwards.

Early misgivings

By the end of the show – when Haddeth is portraying the beginning of the relationship – she has opened up and achieves a convincing lightness of touch to both voice and acting performance. It is enough to convince of Jamie’s initial love in his opening Shishka Goddess – but also of his early misgivings in his second number, that everything might be going too fast.

While Haddeth is moving from introverted to exuberant, Michael Davies  as Jamie is going the other way. It’s not quite as big an opening as it might be, however. Shishka Goddess is well sung, but Davies doesn’t open up his throat and let rip, as he might, in the big rolling blues number of Moving Too Fast. Perhaps Richardson should have asked for more in his direction, but Davies doesn’t give any indication that he would be up to such a big, punchy delivery.

Elsewhere there are no such qualms about his performance. Particularly in the second half, when he passes through those moments already portrayed by Cathy and picks up the cues dropped by her in the first half.

The company makes good use of the Storytelling Centre’s black-box stage, placing the six members of the live band to the sides. Led by musical director Neil Metcalfe on keyboard, the unusual combination of violin (Emma Lloyd), two cellos (Angie Turner and Gill Dainty), guitar (Robin Robertson) and bass guitar (Scott Waterson), gives a driving emphasis to the eclectic styles of music used by Brown in his telling of the story.

Designer Cerin Richardson has played her part in trying to bring clarity to the duel timelines. Her staging allows the two actors to inhabit different areas of the stage according to where they are in the relationship, while her costumes choices similarly reflect the passing of time.

All told, a great choice as a first production for Green Room which has declared its commitment to both the music and the innovation in storytelling in their shows. It might not soar as high as it could, but it certainly darts about with panache and shows glimpses of great things to come.

The Last Five Years now tours to the Birnam Institute, Birnam, for a night on Saturday 8 October, followed by a performance at the Lemon Tree in Aberdeen on Saturday 9 October.

ENDS

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