BWW Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS, St James Theatre, 2 November 2016

Deploying Christopher Nolan's trick from his 2000 film, Memento, Jason Robert Brown tells the story of 90s New Yorkers Jamie and Cathy: his story running forwards from first kiss to last; hers running backwards, from disillusion to giddy dates. And, believe it or not, it works - for which much of the credit goes to the performers, Jonathan Bailey and Samantha Barks.

Fifteen years on from its American premiere and a decade after its London debut, the songs are as strong as ever, reminding me of the best of Brown's work on Parade. Coming in at 90 minutes all-through, there's plenty of variety in musical styles and tone to maintain the pace, from Jamie's confession of forbidden love, the jaunty, funny "Shiksa Goddess" to Cathy's bright-eyed "I Can Do Better Than That". Their narratives meet with "The Next Ten Minutes", as they plight their troths in Central Park - though not, as it proves, for better or for worse. I particularly enjoyed Jamie's patter number, "The Schmuel Song", a tale about a tailor, within a tale.

With props sliding on and off an otherwise sparse stage, the actors bear significant responsibility to create credible characters as well as to sing beautifully (which, of course, they do). With the excellent band (including two cellos - there's plenty of regret to bring out in the score, after all) under Torquil Munro, support from some wisely understated video work by Jeff Sugg and a big stage to fill, the doomed lovers could have been swamped, but their acting chops saw them through.

Jonathan Bailey has a bit of the young Woody Allen in his writer-on-the-rise, Jamie, who is just a little too pleased with himself and a little too quick to excuse his wandering eye, despite all his genuine love for his gentle gentile girl. Bailey brings plenty of charm and humour to the role, but - there's no denying it - Jamie is a bit of a shit.

Samantha Barks matches Bailey all the way in the acting and singing stakes, but her Ohio aspirant actress not quite making it in the Big Apple is somewhat underwritten, her emotional state too dependent on Jamie's career as writer and lover and her best song, "Climbing Uphill", an account of a series of audition failures. Having seen a revival of Wonderful Town a few weeks ago (to which this musical bears some similarities) the 50 years between them appear to have set Ohio women seeking fame and fortune in New York back in terms of their agency in shaping their lives.

Though there is an enormous amount to admire in this production, its centre felt a little empty - can so many middle-class problems ever have been crammed into 90 minutes? Even if the structure had not revealed the marriage's failure from the get-go, I had long stopped caring about the couple's fate as I never really connected with them - or not enough to feel their trauma anyway. (I was more interested in what happened to Schmuel, the tailor from The Pale whose clock stopped long enough for him to sew a magical dress.)

That said, there's always a market for bittersweet romcoms and few have songs as well written, played and sung as this one.

The Last Five Years continues at St James Theatre until 3 December.

Photo Scott Rylander

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From This Author Gary Naylor