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The Last Five Years

by on 7 February 2019

Strings Attached

The Last Five Years

by Jason Robert Brown

Augusta Park Productions at the Questors Studio, Ealing until 9th February

Review by Vince Francis

Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years premiered at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2001 and was then produced Off-Broadway in March 2002. The original concept was for a song cycle for two people, arising from a desire to write something “small and self-contained”. Brown did not intend it to be as personal as the resulting show, which ended up with his ex-wife, Theresa O’Neill, threatening legal action on the grounds the story represented their relationship too closely. Consequently, Brown made some changes in order to reduce the alleged similarities between the character Cathy and O’Neill.

Since then it has had numerous productions both in the United States and internationally. The production won the 2002 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music and Lyrics, as well as receiving Drama Desk nominations for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Actor, Outstanding Actress, Outstanding Orchestrations, and Outstanding Set Design. It also received the Lucille Lortel Award nomination for Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Actor, and the Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical.

Last-Five-Years-4251This production is presented by Augusta Park Productions in the Constantin Stanislavsky Studio at Questors Theatre in Ealing, an excellent choice of venue for an intimate, off-Broadway style piece. The oblong studio is laid out “end on”, that is with the audience on the short side and the band visible upstage of the action at the other end. This provides for about a hundred seats, which adds to the intimate atmosphere. Prior to the show, I couldn’t find out much about Augusta Park Productions apart from their Facebook page (and a reference in Google to a housing development in the Test Valley). The programme tells me that the company was set up by Josh Lewis and if this production is anything to go by, I genuinely wish him all the very best in his future endeavours.

Last-Five-Years-4264The story as presented describes the five year relationship between the two protagonists, Jamie Wellerstein, played by Josh Lewis himself, and Cathy Hiatt, played by Alexandra Christle.

The show sees their stories told in opposite directions; Jamie moving forwards and Cathy backwards through their relationship, meeting only briefly for a moment in time as their stories cross. Josh and Alexandra are both consummate singers and the band, ably directed by Sara Page, provides an ideal platform for them to explore and play around with timing and phrasing, which adds to the character development.

 

Last-Five-Years-4232In terms of orchestration, the show is an ideal candidate for a small ensemble, perhaps even a straightforward solo piano accompaniment and, indeed, the last time I saw it, the band comprised keyboard, bass and guitar and that worked very well. The band for this production follows the original orchestration of Keyboard, Bass, Guitar, two Cellos and violin. Drum kit is omitted, which is probably wise for a smaller venue. This configuration obviously allows the songs to be heard as intended by the writer and was a welcome enhancement to my previous viewing of the show. The band was generally excellent, although there were one or two issues with tuning on the violin on occasion and a couple of instances where it seemed a little bass heavy, although this might have been a function of where I was sitting.

For me, one of the most appealing aspects of Brown’s music is its accessibility, which is achieved, at least in part, I think, by the inclusion of contemporary and mainstream references and influences in the writing. There is a direct sample of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring in the opening number, I’m Still Hurting and, elsewhere, it’s good to hear a Jackson Browne or a Jimmy Webb hint in the broad mix of styles used in the show.

I also liked the straightforward and simple production values in elements such as the set, which uses mainly furniture and furniture dressing and which is changed subtly by the two players as required. Similarly, costumes are kept simple and contemporary, with the addition of a cardigan or sweater here and there to indicate changes in time and mood. Lighting is supportive and sympathetic and creates appropriate moods without being fussy or tricksy. All of these elements help to keep the focus on the performers and the poignant story they are telling.

Grab a ticket if you can, it’s well worth a look.

Vince Francis
February 2019

Photography courtesy of Augusta Park Productions

From → Musicals, Reviews

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