The Last Five Years
Jason Robert Brown
The Oxi Morons
Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle
I remember the enthusiastic reaction to lyricist and composer Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World when it first came to London but unfortunately I didn’t get to see it because I was over 350 miles away and couldn’t make the journey during its run.
I didn’t, in fact, see a JRB show until the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe when Giudecca Productions brought Parade (1999 Tony Award winner) to Southside. In Fringe terms this was a massive show with a large cast, full orchestra and the best that a Fringe venue could offer in terms of sound and lighting.
Now, fifteen years later, I get to see the show which immediately followed Parade, and it could not be more different!
The Last Five Years is a two-hander—and more of a song cycle than a musical, I feel—which clearly shows the influence Sondheim’s work had on Brown. It tells the story of a marriage which lasted five years but from a unique perspective, for the husband Jamie (Gram Cumming) tells the story from the beginning to the end whilst the wife, Cathy (Melanie Carss), goes backwards in time, starting at the end. The only time they meet, both physically and musically, is during the wedding sequence.
Structurally, then, it’s essentially a series of vignettes, or snapshots, similar to Sondheim’s Company or Joe DiPietro’s I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. The structure of The Oxi Morons’ production takes its cue from this and presents each song in a white, square frame with a date (month and year) hand-written on the bottom right, looking exactly like a Polaroid photo. Some are upright, suspended from the ceiling, and some delineated by white tape on the floor.
Again, the central event—the wedding—is differently treated, for the park bench on which the proposal was made is not within a frame. However behind it is a screen on which photos (many of the happy wedding and honeymoon variety) are projected, all in Polaroid format.
The piece doesn’t comment, doesn’t apportion blame or make accusations; it simply says, “this is what happened.” It’s up to us to decide who is to blame, or even if blame can—or should—be laid.
This is The Oxi Morons' first North East production, having been based in Scotland previously, and it is an impressive début. Both performers have excellent voices, handling the demanding musical style with seeming ease, as well as considerable stage presence, and they are well-schooled and accompanied on the piano by MD Tim Jasper.
It’s a first, too, for Alphabetti—its first musical—and, it has to be said, typical of the venue which is never one to go for the easy, middle-of-the-road, safe shows. The Oxi Morons' next musical (2019) will be Lapine and Finn’s 1992 show Falsettos—quite a challenging piece. In style it would fit Alphabetti, but whether it would fit physically is another matter, depending, of course, on the production. Watch this space!
Reviewer: Peter Lathan