Review – The Last Five Years – Liverpool Theatre Festival at St Luke’s Bombed Out Church

JASON Robert Brown’s quirky one-act musical The Last Five Years has outlasted the marriage of its two characters four-fold, clocking up 20 years since its premiere and seemingly never having been without a production onstage somewhere in all that time.

For those unfamiliar with the piece, it follows the five year marriage of Cathy and Jamie from ecstatic proposal to acrimonious divorce. The couple are singularly mismatched, with their individual aspirations pulling in opposite directions – a fact that is graphically demonstrated by having them tell their stories in similarly opposed chronologies. With the narrative carried entirely in a sequence of songs, Jamie begins at the beginning while Cathy works back from the end. Only in the middle of the play, as they meet each other at the altar, do the two characters interact directly onstage.

Successive directors have used a variety of techniques to bring cohesion to the storytelling, sometimes detailed set decoration, sometimes complex choreography that has the performers weaving about each other. In this minimalist production, director Ieastyn Arwel has chosen to put trust in his audience and have the actors perform their numbers in an isolation that could have you believe the entire relationship happened over the phone. Stripped of all but the barest minimum of visual cues, the words become absolutely key to the success of the show.

Fortunately Helen Noble and Graham Tudor have the voices to carry it off with considerable aplomb, giving performances that are at once powerful and nuanced. Both put everything they’ve got into a pair of storylines that are as much at crossed purposes as they are crossed in trajectory. We’re left wondering what possessed them to get married at all – a thought ironically heightened by the knowledge that these two actors are married offstage as well as on.

A marathon performance is given by Musical Supervisor Jordan Alexander, who plays the entire score in a piano reduction from the rear of the stage. The non-stop flow of music is a test of stamina for a single keyboard player and, without the added colour of the usual instrumentation, the persistent rhythm gradually becomes a test for the ears too.

This is a revival that stands entirely on the quality of the individual performances, boldly choosing to let the words and music do all the heavy lifting, and challenging the viewer to fill in the emotional vacuum between the ill-fated couple.

Star rating – 3 stars

Review by Nigel Smith