(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 1 March)
Jason Robert Brown’s one-act musical The Last Five Years could be defined as a chamber opera. It’s based on the film of the same name and tells the story of two young people – an aspiring writer Jamie Wellerstein (Chris Cowley) and an equally ambitious actress Catherine Hiatt (Katie Birtill). They meet, fall in love, marry and separate.
Catherine’s story is told backwards, from her reception of Jamie’s letter saying that he’s left her. Her opening lament with its bitter-sweet refrain of “I’m still hurting” suggests her melodic line throughout; there’s occasionally a hint of a waltz during the good times when their lives seem to run on such smooth parallel lines. The characterisation is in the two characters’ musical idioms, hers the more lyrical, his with rather more of a rhythmic rasp.
Brown knows how to write a tune and the five-piece band, perched high above and at the back of the action in James Perkins’ simple but effective multi-location set, sustains the singing actors without ever overwhelming them. Peter Rowe’s direction wisely allows for the basic simplicity of the story – so old, and always so new – to shine.
He’s lucky in his cast. Birtill shows us the fragility of Catherine’s life, as the failure of her marriage is mirrored in the collapse of her career – a sequence of failed auditions. Cowley is a whirlwind of hopes realised, but at a personal cost. His acting out of a Jewish story in front of a decorated Christmas tree is deservedly something of a show-stopper. He knows that he must leave (his part in the story runs forward, not backward), that there is an emotional price for this – and that he accepts its payment.
The Last Five Years runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 11 March with matinée performances on 2, 5 and 9 March.