The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown is the story of a marriage told from both partners’ perspective, in the form of a chamber musical. We know from the beginning how the story ends, because at the start she’s in tears – it’s the end of the relationship. Cathy – played by Verity Hunt-Ballard – begins to tell the story in scenes that play from final heartbroken resignation backward to all her hopeful sweetness at the beginning of the relationship. Jamie (played by Josh Piterman) tells his side of the story, interspersed in scenes from beginning to end, starting with his hopes, passing through his frustrations, ending in his tears. At the centre of the piece is the wedding – the only time they are both in the same time zone. It’s a fascinating dramatic device, serving to highlight that even when the couple are in the same place, their minds are quite separate.
What tears the couple apart is a difference in life’s successes. He at 23 is already developing a reputation as a writer, and rides a steadily improving career trajectory throughout. She wants to make it on Broadway as a performer, but has only limited success – life is an endless round of auditions and bus and truck theatrical tours of the provinces. Cathy becomes more and more unhappy, and less and less able to share Jamie’s life.
Josh Piterman and Verity Hunt- Ballard are brilliantly cast in the roles. This piece has the two performers so very exposed – only actors with a considerable range need apply here. This is music theatre for grown ups – the emotions are intense. The seduction scenes are startlingly erotic, the moments of happiness exude real warmth, the scenes where they bond building their relationship make us really want them to succeed – then the frustrations and angry moments really bite, their tears and despair move us – the whole emotional journey in this production is truly gripping
It’s also a huge sing – the ranges of both parts are wide, and the dynamic range runs from intimate whisper to sustained belt and everything in between. Both give it all with breathtaking assurance. Musically the piece is surprisingly sophisticated – there is some real complexity in the writing, but because it’s all in the service of the text, appreciation of the extent of this element is likely to be limited to those with a heightened musical awareness. To everyone else, the musical writing will come across simply as effortless support of the drama, which is the true brilliance of the writing. Similarly, while both Piterman and Hunt-Ballard are vocally stunning throughout the show, there is never any sense that anything happens vocally that isn’t entirely in service of the drama. It’s such a fine point of balance, and it is so well achieved in this production. They manage apparently effortless transitions from spoken dialogue to song, and I got every word of the text completely throughout every musical moment.
The band is best described as a chamber orchestra concealed behind a curtain. It features strings, guitar, electric keyboards and very subtle use of fretless bass. The range of this score is a challenge in performance too, and this was all very tightly controlled by Musical Director Daniel Puckey. At times, the vocal parts were underpinned by the pure humanity of a string quartet, at other times, the drive of rock, gospel and funk set the character. Choice of tempo for the musical numbers was exemplary, ensuring not only an excellent clarity of words, but also of the emotional development. As for sound design by Nick Walker – everything was beautifully balanced at all times.
Given the extent of the contribution of the band to the overall effectiveness of the show, it was a sad to note that a late printing problem meant there could be no mention of these wonderful performers in the program.
The performance space at 45 Downstairs itself is certainly as direct and intimate as possible – in this space, The Last Five Years is truly a “fly on the wall” level of observation for the audience, and though the “fourth wall” is firmly in place, the emotional connection is quite confronting. I found it exhilarating.
It was fascinating listening to the conversations of audience members having a glass of wine afterward – it is clear that this is a piece to stimulate thought and discussion about relationships and identity. For some time during the piece I was entertaining a mental discussion about whether there was truly a difference in the actual levels of talent that the two written characters have, or whether it was simply a matter of self-belief, and of one partner getting the lucky break of recognition. There is a very revealing moment when Jamie reads from his recently published novel at a highly publicised book launch.
The design of the set by Daniel Harvey and lighting design by Tom Willis is also remarkably effective – simple elements moved around and imaginatively lit place us in various apartments, bedrooms, and public spaces, skillfully avoiding the claustrophobic element such a tightly located piece could produce.
Having seen this show some sixteen years ago, I thought it would be interesting to see how the piece has travelled. I have to say that this production highlights aspects – dramatically and musically – that I hadn’t noticed so much in that earlier production. Apart from the performers, I expect this was due to the depth of thoughtful consideration given the text in this Vic Theatre Company production. Credit here to the imagination and clarity of vision of director Chris Parker.
This production deserves every success.
The Last Five Years plays at 45 Downstairs until December 11. More information.