The Last Five Years (Online review)

The Last Five Years (Online review)

This seems such an appropriate day to publish a review of the show The Last Five Years from a non-professional company putting a toe into the waters of the professional world. For, five years ago to the day, I was lucky enough to be appearing in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation at the Barbican and later in Stratford-upon-Avon itself. It’s a moment and a whole experience that I will never forget and if you’d like to read more about it then please go to my separate blog Notes From The Bottom (click here). Meanwhile five years later …..

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Today is the big day – theatres are allowed to reopen albeit with social distancing. Let’s hope that this time there won’t be a regression just days later. While the effects of the pandemic on the professional theatre world have been devastating it has also knocked the work of the amateur community into a loop. Even in the brief respites between lockdowns the non-professional practitioners found that what they did was labelled as a hobby rather than work – which is fair enough – but this meant there was no way they could even get together to plan and rehearse, never mind actually perform. Although it has been a growing trend in the last few months, it is still relatively unusual for an amateur company to take the plunge and release content online. But that is precisely what Leicester based KW Productions have done via the platform stream.theatre and are apparently the first such group to do so. And what a great idea; in one bound it takes a non-professional group from playing to an audience limited by geography and a lowly advertising budget to an arena of potentially global proportions. The show of choice is The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown which first saw the light of day Off Broadway in 2002. It has already proved a popular online choice with a production from Southwark Playhouse and given the set up and the current need for Covid 19 restrictions this is hardly surprising.

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For it is a small scale intimate musical which only requires two performers and can be staged quite simply. KWP have decided to take the possibilities further though and the result is an impressively constructed hybrid show/concert/movie which makes very good use of various visual media (film, still photos, Zoom calls, etc.) to stimulate and retain interest. It tells the tale of a couple who meet, date, marry and eventually part; its USP is that nascent author Jamie’s story moves forward in traditional linear fashion while aspiring actor Cathy’s tale begins at the end of the relationship and then moves backwards in time. Thus, in the musical sequencing the former begins on a high but as disillusion and infidelity set in the tone becomes more sombre. For the latter, the start is her low point while in her final song she is full of joyous optimism. It’s an arresting conceit which works well to keep a balance between the couple’s pleasure and pain; at the midpoint at which they marry the two narratives intersect before continuing on their opposing trajectories.

Jason Robert Brown’s score is eclectic to say the least taking its influence from a number of musical styles and genres. In truth I would probably designate the show as a song cycle for two voices rather than a musical; there are some brief snatches of spoken dialogue, but this is really all about the music. I thought one of the strongest numbers was the opening piece “Still Hurting” which set up high hopes of good things to come mostly realised in songs such as “If I Didn’t Believe In You” and “The Next Ten Minutes”. The one song I didn’t particularly care for was “The Schmuel Song” which I thought went on for too long and really diverted matters away from the main thrust of the piece even if the intention was to show some of the work that Jamie was supposed to be doing. Although scored for several instruments, in this iteration the accompaniment is kept simple and effective with just a solo piano played sensitively by Felix Sürbe.

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Danielle Sanders and Keiran Whelan-Newby play the couple and are obviously entirely comfortable with each other in doing so, exuding a range of emotions as their characters change and develop in their respective timelines. Both performers have fine voices and although they are evidently lip synching, many songs have segments which show them live at work at the microphone leaving us in no doubt that they can really sing and put over a number. Written as a series of contrasting solo songs it’s perhaps a shame that there’s only one real duet (at the aforementioned wedding). But in this well thought through iteration at least we get to see them appearing in each other’s songs filmed in various fetching interior and exterior locations by tech whizz Tim Neville. If I had a criticism to make it would be that too many of the locations are clearly not New York (I certainly recognised Rutland Water) but given the restrictions that the team were working under this is hardly surprising. At least they mercifully resisted the urge to apply static backdrops to the film so let’s applaud the decision to paint on a varied canvas and give the show an added dimension.

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I hadn’t seen this show before so cannot really make  comparisons but coming to it fresh I found it both entertaining and pleasing both in its narrative form and musical content; it may be a small scale show but it has a big heart. There are all the attributes of many another professionally based online piece and Keiran, Danielle and their small team can be proud of pushing the boundaries and taking non-professional theatre forward into a new dimension. For an insight into how it was all done watch the background videos on KW Productions You Tube channel. The show itself continues for three more timed performances on May 21st, 22nd and 23rd.

This review first appeared in a slightly shortened form in Sardines Magazine

The Last Five Years is available on stream.theatre – click here

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For my Theatre Online list (suggestions and news of newly released productions) please click here. This list is supplemented by daily updates on Twitter (@johnchapman398)

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