Review: The Last Five Years

KW Productions cannot be faulted for the scale of their ambition in tackling ‘The Last Five Years’ as a digital production, particularly in the midst of the pandemic. Strong performances, bags of creativity and a huge amount of work have clearly been put into the production.

But Jason Robert Brown’s ‘The Last Five Years’ can appear deceptively simple; a two-hander love story, mainly solos, with sparse staging requirements. A simple series of vignettes through the five-year relationship between Jamie Wellerstein, newly published writer, and Cathy Hiatt, aspiring actress.  So far, so straightforward, but the superbly skilful dimension which Jason Robert Brown adds is in the construction of the show. Jamie tells the story of the relationship from beginning to end – and Cathy shows her experience of the relationship in reverse, from its demise back to its tender beginnings.

Danielle Sanders as Cathy Hiatt is powerful, tackling the demanding score with energy and huge vocal prowess. She has the toughest job in opening the show with the most emotionally raw number ‘Still Hurting’, where we are thrown into the depths of Cathy’s grief. With no prelude to this scene, it takes a great deal of focus in the story-telling to establish its placement. Telling a story in reverse is hard, but also reveals that no relationship moves in a ‘straight line’. One moment optimistic and loving, the next devastated and alone, Sanders delivers a fine performance of the full variety of emotions.

Kieran Whelan-Newby gives a convincing portrayal of the ambitious writer Jamie Wellerstein. As Jamie’s star rises, Cathy struggles with her career and the physical distance between them becomes an emotional distance. Sadly, I missed ‘Shiksa Goddess’, one of my favourite songs, due to a technical glitch (whether locally or on the streaming platform, I’m not sure). But Kieran’s strong comic timing in ‘The Schmuel Song’ indicates ‘Shiksa’ was probably the big, rumbustious song it’s supposed to be, celebrating love and life. It’s one of the beauties of Jason Robert Brown’s writing that he makes a song about Jewish traditions and familial expectations so accessible and entertaining. Whelan-Newby has a rich tone and impressive range to his voice and tackles everything from ballad to quirky ditty with confidence.

The show is presented as a compilation of videography and stills, with even some animation thrown in for good measure. A range of techniques and styles are then layered on top. Throughout, scenes filmed of the recording of the soundtrack are included, breaking the fourth wall, and here, in the moment of recording, there is real depth of emotion expressed. In the translation to video, with some songs being mimed to the soundtrack, the emotional connection is somewhat lost. The still photography is stunning, capturing moments and expressions much more readily than the video on many occasions.

Filming is terrifically difficult on a budget and much of it does work, thanks to the skill of Gina Fernandes Photography. ‘The Next Ten Minutes’ is simply approached, with the crossing point in the two narratives the apex, where all seems perfect in the relationship. It then cleverly runs in reverse, to show that timelines are diverging again. Good use has been made of local locations to add interest and texture – but the impossibility of re-creating downtown New York does mean the atmosphere of the whole piece is changed.

The score on this occasion is presented purely on piano, and pianist Felix Sürbe does a superb job of interpreting it, ranging from upbeat jazz style to a languorous waltz and everywhere in between.

The first time I saw this show, I read the synopsis, so knew what to expect in the unusual timelines.  My companions did not, and by the interval there were some puzzled faces. It’s a complex show, and it is therefore terrifically brave of KW Productions to try to capture the intensity of it. There is perhaps rather too much going on, visually, with constant changes of style, switching from still to video, from scene setting background shots to mimed ‘reality’. The focus is lost, our emotional involvement in the intimacy of the relationship is broken.  But there is no doubt that both Sanders and Whelan-Newby are fine performers, and we can all look forward to the day theatres re-open and they are able to display their talents again.

Streaming until Sunday 23rd May. Book HERE.

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