Monday, 13 August 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: The Last Five Years

Last autumn, Derry-Londonderry's Playhouse Theatre enjoyed a bit of "reverse psychology" from one of Northern Ireland's finest singers...

The Last Five Years is a fascinating musical, and not your everyday one at that. It's a non-linear story about a dysfunctional couple, with little emphasis on sets and a big band, a la Carousel and Oklahoma, and more emphasis on creativity and humanity.

And it's executed impressively, with West End star Peter Corry and Strabane's very own Michelle Forbes being given the full opportunity to express themselves in front of a quietly understated, but effective, mini orchestra.

The script was inspired by the failed marriage of the writer, Jason Robert Brown, and is thus a very personal story. Director Kieran Griffiths has said his attraction to the material came from its nature, which, in turn, enabled him to put his own, very human "spin" on the production.

The show tells the tempestuous tale of the five year relationship, and marriage, between Jamie (Corry) and Cathy (Forbes). With Jamie's story being told from the beginning of their union, in 2006, to its end, in 2011, and Cathy's story being told alongside it in reverse, a deliberately schizophrenic tone is required. Both actors rise to the occasion, delivering numerous contrasting musical monologues that keep one continuously interested throughout the play, eventually leading to a satisfying finale.

Starting with a sad, low-key number about the end of the union in 2011 ("Still Hurting", sung beautifully by Forbes) followed by an upbeat song about finding new love in 2006 ("Shiksa Goddess", which Corry delivers with his usual panache), both script and actors deliver a show that allows the audience to both enjoy the music and have something to think about.

The play is economical in terms of its sets, with only clever lighting and a handful of props needed to assist in the storytelling. This is one of those instances where necessity brings out creativity, in a musical well suited to the confines of the theatre.

As the show proceeds, further emotions are explored and conveyed through singing and facial expressions. Jazzy numbers like "Moving Too Fast" give Corry a chance to show off his versatility, to great effect, while Forbes convincingly illustrates Cathy's aloofness during parts of the marriage.

Through his performance, Corry ensures that we see Jamie as a successful author, but one who comes across as too "in your face" about his success; and Cathy never feels part of it. She doesn't buy his "story within a story" at Christmas ("The Schmuel Song"), and it reaches a point where it looks like she'll have to fight to stop his career taking over the marriage ("I’m A Part Of That"). It's at times like these where Forbes clearly matches Corry with every beat, tearing into her part with new found dynamism.

Said tension is cleverly relieved at the interval with a wonderful wedding duet ("The Next Ten Years") – the very point where the couple's stories intersect. It’s the best way to end the first half.

Already, the audience has learnt much about the characters. We assume that although both seem spiteful, selfish and not thinking about what each other wants, it's clear that they are multifaceted human beings.

By that point, one could easily assume that there would not be much more to learn about Jamie and Cathy, but you'd be wrong. The second half delves even deeper into the characters' foibles. In one moment, Cathy considers how her life has changed for the worst, while Jamie makes it clear he will not renounce his career for her comfort. In other words, lose because she can't win ("If I Didn’t Believe In You"). It invites the interesting question of whether or not you love somebody enough to put your career on the line for them. And Griffiths and his performers explore it compellingly.

And again, because one story is being told alongside one another, the contrast never lets up, as we soon hear Cathy singing about how accepting she will be of Jamie’s habits ("I Can Do Better Than That"). Along with the previous number, it's a great commentary on the power of love and the decay of a relationship. It all leads to a quietly moving goodbye duet at the end ("Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You") where we learn that not all couples are as compatible as they would like to think they are.

Once Corry and Forbes bow to rapturous applause, there's no doubt that this production of The Last Five Years has set a new standard for the low-key musical with something to say.

(Originally written on September 28, 2011.)