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The Last Five Years/Epstein Theatre

Stephen Fletcher and Helen Carter a perfect marriage in story of love gone sour

Written by . Published on June 11th 2013.


The Last Five Years/Epstein Theatre
 

IF you missed it last year, here is another chance to catch a bittersweet Budweiser, pretzels 'n' cronuts treat of a Broadway show at the Epstein. Or, rather, off-Broadway.

Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years was first showcased at the Actors Studio in Liverpool. Produced by Liverpool-based Life in Theatre Productions it won awards and critical acclaim in its short run.

There is a good deal of personal chemistry at work which complements the pure clarity of their well-trained vocals. Both actors are sublimely good

Now it's back and part of a Broadway double-bill which the Epstein is sharing with New York's Second Stage Theatre who will bring us The Sunshine Boys in August. Much to look forward to, then.

In essence, The Last Five Years is about the tender but failed relationship between budding novelist Jamie (Stephen Fletcher) and aspiring actress Cathy (Helen Carter). Set in modern-day, downtown Manhattan, it follows the thrills of first meeting, instant attraction and blossoming love. Then the cracks began to show, followed by the inevitable wrenching pangs of self-realisation and ultimate separation. When it's finally run its course the foundations are no longer there.

The Epstein is well-suited to this production. Its cosy intimacy works well for the intertwined personal stories shared here, but it also poses a challenge to the actors’ abilities as their emotions are laid excruciatingly bare so up close and personal. That said, they both infuse it with much energy and passion with spot-on New York accents and attitudes. There is a good deal of personal chemistry at work which complements the pure clarity of their well-trained vocals. Both actors are sublimely good.

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Fourteen mostly-solo songs plot the relationship breakdown: chronologically, from Jamie's perspective, and in reverse with Cathy. Here we begin at the end [after she's broken up with Jamie] and move towards the beginning so that her first number "Still Hurting" becomes almost unbearable in its tragic poignancy. The only time their paths cross is in the middle.

Every other song in the show is sung separately (with them occasionally crossing each other, but, not singing with each other). Their parallel narratives interweave in one of the most affecting numbers in the show, The Next Ten Minutes, as they begin to realise just how important they could be for each other. There's hardly any dialogue to speak of, save for a few snatches of conversation and mobile phone calls.

This forward/backward storytelling takes a while to get used to. Yes, it's an original way of weaving the two life-histories together but doesn't always work to the show's advantage in that it tends to confuse Cathy's side of this song cycle with Jamie's. My guess is that Brown used it as way of reinforcing the fact that there could never be a happy ending for either of them. Once you realise this, the show becomes easier to understand – like when you finally manage to get the image on those 3D pictures that just look like wallpaper to begin with.

This is Jason Robert Brown's third show following on from "Parade" and his revue show "Songs for a New World". He's becoming recognised as a gifted writer and arranger being compared to, say, Sondheim and Schwartz. Well, probably. I think he's more in tune and has been heavily influenced by Neil Simon and Sammy Khan given the New York Jewish background and references. For instance, When Jamie meets Cathy, he calls her his "Shiksa Goddess" [non-Jewish] and the brilliant lyrics crackle with smart ironic humour.

Jamie's songs tend to be harder-edged than Cathy’s, maybe because Brown shows a particular empathy with Jamie's story rather than hers. In fact, the show mirrors Brown's personal experiences through his own prickly separation and divorce [his ex-wife taking out a lawsuit against him for making it too close to their own anguishes during the break-up]. So, there’s a certain degree of confessional revelation.

“The Last Five Years” uses a variety of musical styles, including Harlem jazz and up-tempo blues, with splendid treatments from accomplished Nick Philips [piano], Emily Roe [violin] and Luke Moore [cello].

They made the most of Brown's score and arrangements which gave it a crisp bite and subtle renditions. You almost felt like you were down in the Lower East Side.

Incidentally, there's a good deal of LIPA influence here which we is a now-established seedbed for future productions in the city.

We must also acknowledge Stephen Fletcher's direction of the whole piece. By the end, you feel like you know Cathy and Jamie so well that you're desperate to know what happens next. Opportunity for a sequel perhaps?

For anyone who's ever been truly, madly and deeply in love and, then, been abandoned by their soulmate whilst their hopes and dreams crumbled, they’ll find songs and scenarios that'll touch some raw nerves and emotions to the core.

In musical terms, 100 minutes and 14 songs is a tough ask for two actors to get through, yet Stephen and Helen achieved it with zestful chutzpah and subtle panache which well-deserved the standing ovation at the end. The songs said it all.

The Last Five Years, Epstein Theatre, Hanover Street, until June 23.


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