The play that kicked this all off was The Last 5 Years. It’s one of my favourite plays – a song cycle with an innovative structure that follows the doomed relationship of a couple in their mid twenties living in New York. Written by Jason Robert Brown and first staged off-Broadway in 2002, it was based on his failed first marriage, and has since been performed all over the world, acquiring somewhat of a cult following amongst musical theatre fans.
The play starts with a song from Cathy at the end of their 5 years together, and then the songs alternate between her and her partner Jamie – she progressing backwards through their time together and he going from start to finish. They only meet once, in the middle song, and the accompaniment for all of the songs causes them to bleed into each other, leaving a seemless transition from one to the next. There is certainly no time for applause in between numbers, let alone for the actors to rest their voices, in what must be a hugely demanding show to perform, running for 80 minutes with no interval and minimal straight speech.
The Tabard staged it interestingly – the tiny 80 seater theatre above a pub in Turnham Green is the perfect setting for such an intimate show – with the stage split in two, digital photos on the back wall lighting up/extinguishing as each character progressed through their story. It looked good and worked well, although by not moving into each other’s space the characters seemed more disconnected than in other productions I have seen, where their proximity really highlighted the tragedy of whichever character’s early excitement is being expressed.
In such a song-heavy show the singing voices have to be faultless, and Lauren Samuels (of Over the Rainbow fame) was astonishing. Note perfect and achieving the balance of vulnerability, neediness and optimism that made her Cathy sympathetic rather than the whiny that can sometimes be the result, she completely blew my socks off. This girl is without doubt one to watch.
The trouble with the 2-man play is that comparing the two leads can’t be helped, and unfortunately Samuels’ co-star came away as the definite loser. An understudy for Christopher Pym whose name I can’t even find, he did a stirling job of getting through (god knows how understudies stay motivated when there isn’t even a chorus part) and undoubtedly warmed up as he went, but his Jamie came across as smarmy, his performance was a little shaky at times and his voice just couldn’t live up to Samuels’ high standard. It’s particularly upsetting to see an actor forget his lines… however this may well have been lost on members of the audience with a lower lever of ‘L5Y’ geekery… and certainly didn’t drag down the whole show.
I came away feeling my favourite music theatre glow and extremely impressed with both the theatre and lead actress. Unfortunately the run ended this week, but keep an eye out for Samuels and future productions at the Tabard – both gained strong recommendations as a result of this performance.