Theatre Review: The Last Five Years – Melodic Discord, Or When Harmony Is In The Past

April 3, 2022

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By BRUCE DENNILL

The Last Five Years / Directed by Paul Griffiths / Theatre On The Bay, Camps Bay, Cape Town

 

It’s difficult to tell a clear, detailed story through music alone. It’s difficult to sing said music while energetically acting, moving back and forth, up and down different stage levels and interacting with a range of props. And it’s difficult to develop and maintain an innovative concept that plays out over the entire running time of a production. So when all of the above challenges are met and the inherent goals are achieved with passion and technique to spare, the result is beyond entertaining – it’s thrilling.

Jason Robert Brown is an extraordinary composer, using compound time signatures, odd harmonies and multiple key changes and being more than happy to indulge a penchant for leaving the last line of a song unresolved (if it makes you uncomfortable to hear an unexpected note at the end of a piece of music, you’ll be twitching by the time the curtain falls here). Musical director Jaco Griessel and his excellent band are, happily, more than up for the challenge, playing live on stage behind the actors and – in Griessel’s case – further adding to the flow and energy of the piece with fluid conducting and confident control of the rhythms.

The size of the job at hand for stars Zoë McLaughlin as Cathy and Anthony Downing as Jamie is formidable. Jamie is a novelist whose star is on the rise. Cathy’s an actress attempting to follow the same curve. They fall hard for each other and get married, but, given the pressures and temptations of both lifestyles, there are predictable challenges to their relationship.

The musical’s main conceit in terms of innovation is its twisting of time, with one character’s narrative arc running forwards, chronologically, and the other running in reverse. Brown’s writing – beyond the complex rhymes and cadences of his lyrics – still keeps that somehow clear, though it’s likely that for most audience members, the idea only really falls into the slot around halfway through, adding richness and texture to what has already happened by then and to what comes after.

Each character gets equal time to express themselves and to unpack their side of the story, each performing solo songs packed with humour or pathos, depending on the context, and joining for the gorgeous duet The Next Ten Minutes in the middle of the piece. Jamie’s Shiksa Goddess and Cathy’s Climbing Uphill/Audition sequence are arguably the solo standouts, though there’s no real dip in quality, emotional heft or pace throughout.

Cathy and Jamie are massive roles in terms of the singing involved – the amount, the complexity, the emotion – and McLaughlin and Downing do superbly well to manage and excel, improving from a high base as they warm up. And to characters who are hardly ever on stage at the same time, they add chemistry, making both the blissful and the miserable aspects of the couple’s relationship feel real.

The Last Five Years is a different, stimulating sort of musical theatre offering, and if you’ve only considered more traditional options, it might consider just the slightest shifting of a comfort zone boundary. But immerse yourself in the movement and depth of these songs, the relatability of the story and the outstanding performances of the actors and the band, and your reward will be a full heart and a head packed with snippets of multifaceted songs.

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