Review: The Last Five Years, by Jason Robert Brown, The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, until March 11.
- Credit: Archant
The New Wolsey Theatre gets its 15th birthday celebrations off to a fine start with a bewitching production of Jason Robert Brown’s contemporary musical The Last Five Years.
It’s a show about love, ambition and relationships and how youthful egos and petty jealousies can sow seeds of suspicion and destroy what could have been a strong and happy marriage.
Inspired by Brown’s own failed first marriage, The Last Five Years presents a wonderful opportunity for talented young actors Katie Birtill and Chris Cowley to create characters which live through the songs and guide the audience through what could have been a confusing show.
The sung-through show starts at the end with Catherine coming to terms with the collapse of her marriage while in the next number her yet-to-be husband Jamie, a highly successful young novelist, is celebrating their first meeting. As Catherine moves backward to her first meeting, Jamie’s story progresses through to break-up.
Director Peter Rowe’s bold staging banishes any fear of confusion as frequent lighting and costume changes steer the audience through the contradictory time-line. Unlike many previous versions, he also has the two leads sharing the stage for most of the show, being an unspoken presence, during one another’s songs, giving the actors someone to react against.
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Katie Birtill and Chris Cowley create two believable but flawed individuals which elicit both sympathy and frustration. At times you want to bang their heads together – which is good because it means you are involved with the show.
Their singing is both powerful and moving with the actors acting the songs as well as singing them. Their performances provide a strong emotional connection with the audience which is complemented by richly textured musical arrangements from musical director Caroline Humphries’ five piece band featuring cello and violin.
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The stage is largely bare except for a wooden porch and a small jetty with the cast adding set decoration as and when required. This allows the action to move swiftly through the years and from location to location.
The band surveys the action from a bridge-like balcony under which designer James Perkins provides an impressive suggestion of a boat and an old car.
It’s a fast show – just 90 minutes long with no interval – but it nicely displays the skill and ambition that the New Wolsey creative team share. They have produced a wonderful birthday gift – a confident and engagingly staged slice of contemporary musical theatre aimed at appealing to new audiences as well as the regulars in this anniversary year.