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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Last Five Years
Menier Chocolate Factory Summer 2006

This play-by-way-of-song-cycle by Jason Robert Brown is an excellent showcase for one of the finest young talents of the American musical theatre. As a play it is a bit less successful.

Brown, best known as the composer of the Tony-winning Parade in 1998, writes excellent theatre songs that stand out not only for their own merits but also (almost uniquely among younger theatre composers) for not sounding like Stephen Sondheim.

He's at his best with dramatic ballads, but this score also includes some light numbers, a patter song and even a touch of country rock.

The plot, told almost entirely through song, is a basic one - boy and girl fall in love, are happy, become unhappy, and split up.

The original touch is that he lives it in chronological order while she experiences it in reverse. So the first two songs are her lament for the dead relationship and his excitement at its beginning, and the last two reverse the positions. 

The one duet comes appropriately at the centre, with his proposal, and the song - The Next Ten Minutes - is appropriately the best of the evening.

While the songs are all good, they have to carry the entire burden of the plot and psychology, which means that a potentially complex set of insights - the boy is a successful writer and the girl an unsuccessful actress; she feels left behind while he reads her lack of success as lack of ambition and loses respect for her - can barely be sketched in.

The double time line creates an appropriately bittersweet tone, but it also lures Brown into a bit of stylistic laziness. Far too many of the songs - at least a third, by my memory - have exactly the same structure, starting lightly, with happiness or joking, and then betraying a darker or unhappy side to the singer or situation.

Repetition makes the potentially chilling device increasingly predictable and ineffective.

Lara Pulver is a strong singing actress, drawing all the passion out of her sadder songs, though the score only gives a few tantalising hints of her abilities with lighter or happier material. Damian Humbley has a fine voice but seems more limited, filtering everything through a flirt-with-the-audience perkiness that is not always appropriate.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Last Five Years - Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre 2006


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