Widely advertised as the Just So society’s first show in the reopened Byre and with a team of well-known figures in the St Andrews’ musical theatre scene, The Last Five Years had a lot to live up to on its opening night.
Written by Jason Robert Brown, the musical charts the romantic relationship of Jamie and Cathy from its beginning to its ends. What distinguishes this musical is its unusual structure. Whilst Jamie’s story starts at the beginning of the relationship and moves through it in chronological order, Cathy’s opens at its conclusion and moves backwards in time. There is only one point, halfway through the musical, when their stories correspond and they sing directly to each other.
Staged in The Byre’s upstairs studio, there were obvious issues with the venue. Whilst the seating was undeniably comfortable, it made for very poor visibility of the stage for anyone not sat in the centre of the first two rows. Nonetheless the decision to keep the stage minimalistic was the right one, perhaps through necessity as much as choice. Notably, however, the pianist and cellist remained onstage throughout the production. The issue of this was that it meant the singing was occasionally drowned out and large chunks of lyrics ended up lost. Yet despite this, as the piano accompaniment in particular was so prominent, it seemed fitting that it almost became the production’s third performer.
At its heart, however, The Last Five Years succeeds or fails on the strength of its two leads. At the play’s opening, Emma Seckel, as Cathy, certainly had the harder of the two jobs. It is not difficult for the audience to immediately fall in love with Jamie as he embarks on his exciting new relationship. Cathy, on the other hand, is filled with bitterness and pain and Seckel had the task of invoking the audience’s compassion. Whilst she is good in these early numbers, it seems clear she is still finding her feet a little. As the musical continues, however, she grows into the character and conveys Cathy’s unabashed delight in Jamie with warmth and sincerity. Her performance of ‘I Can Do Better Than That’ is possibly her best: funny, endearing and authentic.
Conversely, Struan Erlenborn seemed to be at his best when the relationship began to fall apart. Some of his most touching numbers came later in the show with ‘If I Didn’t Believe In You’ giving a much needed boost of audience sympathy for Jamie. Having said that, ‘The Schmuel Song’, in which Jamie attempts to lift Cathy’s spirits with a quirky Christmas tale was one of the most enjoyable moments in the show. It was delightful to see Erlenborn throw off the gentle-and-sweet persona of Jamie and become a little bit more idiosyncratic and eccentric.
It is, however, when the two sing together that the show is at its best. ‘The Next Ten Minutes’ highlighted how well their voices complemented each other and the chemistry between the two was palpable with both Seckel and Erlenborn reaching new depths of vulnerability with each other.
The Last Five Years is a very simple story, told with a complicated structure. It is this simplicity that makes us care deeply for its two central characters, delighting in their happiness and sharing in their pain. Though the direction is sparse, it is to director, Tommy Rowe’s credit that he does not attempt to over-complicate the musical. At its heart, what makes The Last Five Years so effective is its fantastic melodies and the strength of its two lead characters, something of which this production seemed aware.