The Last 5 Years

Jason Robert Brown
Notes from New York
Duchess Theatre
(2009)

Julie Atherton & Paul Spicer

This award-winning autobiographical show by Jason Robert Brown has much to commend it, which is not to deny that it is beset with drawbacks. For a start a sung-through two-hander where the characters only sing together once and in which nothing really happens, clearly is going to be diminished by the absence of a dramatic climax.

There are additional issues with the clarity of the narrative: the two different takes on the same love story are recounted simultaneously with one delivered from start to finish and the other having a reversed timeline. Let's be frank, it's a bit of a gimmick. To paper over the self-evident cracks the songs need to be really special and fortunately some of them are.

All this probably goes to explain why I have always found The Last Five Years to be more interesting than thrilling. Now though, the current production in the Notes from New York at the Duchess Theatre season, and more importantly Julie Atherton's thoughtful performance as Cathy, has largely turned me round.

This intelligent and witty interpretation made Cathy much more of a likeable character and less of the whiney pain that I recall from previous renditions and the cast album (though some whining remains, mostly courtesy of the composer). Since there is no dialogue at all and the songs are primarily concerned with the story, the characterisations are, by definition, pretty sketchy but Atherton made Cathy something more than mere spectre.

Cathy tells her side of the five-year relationship in reverse chronology and here again Atherton came through in arguably the harder of the two roles, with a clear transition from heart-broken, cheated-on wife "covered with scars I did nothing to earn" backwards to love-struck innocent " wrapped up inside that one perfect kiss".

The cause of Cathy's heart-break is husband Jamie who is not unengaging as heels go. Paul Spicer plays the up-and-coming novelist with a lot of charm and energy but without great interpretive detail which could have made him more likable. In "Moving Too Fast" Jamie's 'swollen ego' was on display without a balancing sensitive side so when he says "I'm feeling panicked and rushed and hurried out-manoeuvred and outclassed", I wasn't moved. A nuance of modesty might have garnered some empathy if not some sympathy.

Within a set reminiscent of a grotty south-east London bedsit, Amelia Sears directs the almost un-stageable whilst lighting designer David Howe battles (largely successfully) to create atmosphere. Musical Director Torquil Munro leads a hardworking band that ably cover the range of clever pastiche numbers in this problematic song-cycle.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti