The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown is a musical which focuses on the five year relationship of Cathy Hiatt and Jamie Wellerstein, a struggling performer and rising novelist respectively. The story focuses on their individual recounts and encounters within the relationship with Jamie’s journey moving from their initially smitten beginnings through to his eventual departure from the relationship and Cathy’s being shared in reverse chronological order. The use of this convention sets this work apart from most theatrical productions and informs us about these characters in an interesting and measured way, and that is why this piece has been well loved by audiences and is regarded as a music theatre favourite.
Traditionally, each song is treated as a vignette within the larger story. Each vignette depicts a point in time that reflects a shift or a change within the relationship. Most of these songs are constructed as solos for either Cathy or Jamie to sing – usually to the audience who are treated as the other person in the room – and the two do not connect until right in the middle of the piece, where they marry and sing together for the only time in the show.
In this production, director Chris Parker has chosen to incorporate both characters throughout most of the scene work. While one sings, the other listens, reacts, or is simply present. Essentially, it felt like the concept of the 2015 movie of The Last Five Years (which featured Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick in the feature roles) had been adapted for the stage, although I’m sure this was not intended. At times this staging choice provided some nice moments where the chemistry between Cathy and Jamie was further explored and shared with us; but largely I found this choice confused the piece, making transitions unclear while not helping to distinguish changes back and forth in time. For a first time viewer of this production, I would fear the linear narratives would be particularly tricky to decipher. It works better in the movie with the ability to cut to new locations in time.
Musical direction by Daniel Puckey is superb. Puckey’s small band (who aren’t credited in the show’s program) are predominantly made up of a strings section with Puckey on keys and a guitar. The small combo are tight and precise with their execution, and are a true highlight of the production.
Production design by Daniel Harvey shows innovative thinking and great aesthetic application. The Fortyfive Downstairs space has an urban vibe about it which has been incorporated into the modern setting of the show. The set is a diagonally placed, hollow “Ikea-style” storage-space wall. Filled with trinkets, memories and possessions (and the occasional cleverly hidden prop) it creates a modern and youthful apartment setting. A movable bed that sits at either side of the wall at various times helps to create different rooms. At times the placement of the set on a diagonal seems a strange choice considering the seating configuration and the occasional upstaging of a performer when behind the structure, but it largely becomes an interesting point of difference for this production.
Harvey’s costumes also do well to convey how the characters grow as individuals throughout the five year time-span. Jamie’s costumes keep him looking fresh, fit and successful, while Cathy retains a more artistic and creative sense; you get the impression she buys at op-shops, which suits the character’s creative spirit. My only issue with the costuming of this show ties in directly with both performers being present in each others vignettes. Not all transitions allowed for a defined costume change between scene transitions, requiring costume changes during numbers, and seemed inconsistent at times.
The lighting by Tom Willis helps the audience follow the piece and create new spaces within the set. It is simple, understated and effective. Sound designer Nick Walker makes sure that both of the performers and the band are well amplified throughout the piece. .
As Jamie Wellerstein, Josh Piterman looks every part the appealing young hopeful writer. His rounder vocal tone sounds great across the range of this score. Piterman’s Jamie starts as a boyish, goofy and loveable leading man. His “Tevye-inspired” dance during ‘The Schmuel Song’ continues to make him endearing. As Jamie’s career takes off and we see him grow into a man who aligns more with professional priorities; Piterman takes a more serious and frustrated tone. In “Nobody Needs to Know”, he crumbles into a well of emotion as he realises he has made irreconcilable mistakes, yet it would have been more powerful to see him fight this emotion and perhaps find himself detached or torn about the path he is choosing; especially with his mistake only a room away. (The obvious sight of his co-star at this point also confused this moment). Jamie ultimately decides to leave the relationship – don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler; the show opens with “Jamie is over and Jamie is gone” – and leaves the apartment with a sense of regret and hope for the future.
Verity Hunt-Ballard plays Cathy Hiatt with vigorous spirit and a keeps up a likeable presence throughout. As she laments the end of her relationship in the opening song, we see a mature Cathy who is hurting whilst trying to remain in control of her emotions. As her narrative progresses backwards in time, we see her digress through mistrust, stubbornness and upset to a more fun and flirty younger self who ends the show as a hopeful and starry-eyed young woman, with hope for what the future holds. Hunt-Ballard’s voice is light and demure, sitting comfortably on the score. She uses her comedic instincts well when opportunity presents itself, especially in portraying Cathy as a less confident performer than herself in ‘Audition Sequence’. Her most endearing moments are in the second half of the show when she able to be more playful and we finally gain more insight into why she is equally as loveable as Jamie was from the outset.
Each of the vignettes are staged thoughtfully and given obvious consideration. The use of props throughout the show adds further detail to this production, although at times the piece could benefit from less physical action and more focus on the text. It was refreshing to see the lyrics given new meaning in being situational rather than reflective, but I also saw the performers instinctively disconnect from each other when the lyrics don’t quite fit the situation. The song ‘The next 10 minutes’, is written as a poignant moment in the show because it is the only time in the five year encompassing song cycle, where we see the two connect on stage. Having seen the two constantly be part of each others narratives through the show, this moment lost its impact. And just when it seemed to be set apart as the only time the two kissed, there was another kiss before the last song of the show, which further detracted from the clarity of timelines. In particular though, I enjoyed the use of a carefully placed letter and key-set which helped bring the show full-circle.
The final observation that I’d like to share is that the two performers never quite convinced me that they looked like a real couple. There always seemed to be an intangible disconnect between them with respect to their physical appearances and chemistry, possibly because they were always present in each other’s story without ever responding verbally to one another. Given the fate of their story, I couldn’t have found this more fitting.
The Last Five Years will play through to the 11th of December at Fortyfive Downstairs. For fans of the movie, I would definitely say that there is a lot to enjoy about this production, but for first timers, I would probably suggest reading a quick synopsis of the piece before sitting down to enjoy two very competent performers do what they do best in a modest, modern production.