Words by Max Modell
When I heard The Last Five Years was playing in Cardiff, I knew I had to be there. The Last Five Years is one of my all-time favourite musicals and this is the third version of the production I have seen (plus the film). However, this production is a very different beast to the ones I have seen before, incorporating complex choreography and British Sign Language into the musical.
The Last Five Years follows the story of Jamie and Cathy’s five-year relationship and its conclusion, with Jamie’s perspective being told in chronological order and Cathy’s in reverse chronological order. The pair tell their story through songs which take influence from traditional music theatre ballads, jazz, pop, rock and folk. The soundtrack is truly epic, being powerful, emotional and funny while also being able to portray a complex narrative with little reliance on sporadic dialogue. It is this soundtrack and initiative structure that make this musical stand above so many others.
Usually, the musical is presented in quite a simple manner with just two actors, Jamie and Cathy, alternately taking the stage and singing about the moment of the relationship they are in, meeting in the middle for wedding duet “The Next Ten Minutes”.
While brilliant this traditional presentation of the show can fail to capture the imagination if poorly executed due to a lack of physically being written into the musical. Furthermore, this structure and presentation means during the majority of the musical neither Jamie or Cathy have anyone to interact with on stage. Director Angharad Lee and choreographer Mark Smith look to directly address these criticisms by bringing an element of interpretive dance to the show. They do this by casting two versions of Jamie and Cathy, one the traditional singing version and the other a dancing counterpart who interacts with the traditional version with initiative dance which encompasses element of British Sign Language. This adds an extra physical dimension to the musical and also creates a physical representation of the internal conflicts of the characters. This is particularly effective in “A Miracle Would Happen” as Jamie fights with his desire to cheat on Cathy.
This mode of presentation creates a messy and beautiful collision of mediums as the raw and grounded emotions of the singing performers clashes with exaggerated dance of their counterparts, who are freer and looser, as if they embody the souls of the characters.
While this definitely adds an extra element to the musical, it often felt as if it over complicated the production, when one of the beauties of the show is its simplicity. Often there was too much happening on stage leaving me unsure what to focus on. This should not be the case in such a laser focused musical. Furthermore, it almost felt surplus to requirements. The show is so effective on its own and it felt as if it was over complicating it for the sake of it. While intriguing and something which added to the show for me as someone who has seen it many times, I couldn’t help thinking that I was glad this wasn’t my first time seeing the show, as this is not the way I would want to be introduced to this story.
Overall, The Last Five Years is a brilliant musical, and this is unquestionably an interesting take on the source material. The performances are fantastic across the board and the choreography is exquisite. While I believe a more traditional take is the best way to be introduced to The Last Five Years this production is well worth a watch, particularly if you are a fan of theatre which pushes established boundaries.