It’s been a bit of a week for song cycles – Company at Southwark Playhouse has great tunes but doesn’t really lift the ‘book’ off the page, and The Last Five Years doesn’t even have one.
American composer Jason Robert Brown penned fourteen songs for a pair of actors: she sings the cycle going backwards from the breakdown of their marriage, he works forward from their first romantic tryst. They never interact or touch except in the one number that marks their wedding.
That much is smart and original, and although ‘Dorothy’ entrant Lauren Samuels has a great voice for the material, she’s underdirected and at 22 patently too young to be wrestling the emotions of an about-to-be-divorced wife. Christopher Pym is also a competent performer if somewhat studenty in his mannerisms.
That the evening isn’t totally gripping isn’t really their fault: Brown used to be heralded as the ‘Next Stephen Sondheim’ but despite a couple of encouraging awards about ten years ago, at 40 he hasn’t yet had the breakthrough show to take him mainstream and is looking increasingly like the Tim Henman of musical theatre.
All the songs are orchestrated with the same mounting crescendo – rising in the final bars to a stagey climax which makes each of them feel like a finale, although none delivers a satisfying chord resolution or in this un-nuanced production a lyric that truly engages the audience. In a through-sung show, this is a serious flaw and you long for the obviously talented composer to collaborate on a better, scripted story.
On the plus side, Samuels shows great promise for her future work, the mirrored and symmetrical set by Ben M Rogers is stunning, and the band under Lee Freeman are terrific. If their energy and virtuosity alone could float the show, it would be a winner.
The Last Five Years continues at The Tabard, London W4 (2 minutes from Turnham Green underground station) until 5 March. Performances are Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 4pm. Tickets are £16 and the show runs 1 hour 20 minutes with no interval. On Tuesdays, Jamie Lee Pike replaces Samuels as Cathy. Box Office is Ticketweb on 0844 8472264 (fees may apply).