Photo credit: Scott Rylander
St James Theatre in Victoria is an underrated performing space. Tucked away just behind the much flashier Victoria Palace, which for many years housed family favourite Billy Elliot and will be home to Broadway hype Hamilton next, they often put on new or lesser known musicals but with an incredible cast and creative team behind it. From Miss Atomic Bomb to Urinetown and You Won't Succeed on Broadway if You Don't Have Any Jews to two-hander The Last Five Years starring Samantha Barks (Les Misérables) and Jonathan Bailey (Broadchurch).
Like many people in their twenties, Cathy and Jamie's relationship goes through its ups and downs as they're finding themselves and their places in the world. While Jamie rises to fame as a critically acclaimed novelist, Cathy struggles to get a break in her acting career. Over the course of five years they slowly but surely go from head-over-heels-in-love students, to a reasonably happy married couple, to drifting apart and resenting each other's choices.
Written by Jason Robert Brown (The Bridges of Madison County, Parade, Songs for a New World), The Last Five Years' most iconic feature is its unique approach to storytelling. Through Cathy's eyes we see her love story with Jamie unfold from the present into the past, while Jamie's story moves from the past into the present. Cathy and Jamie only ever meet on stage once; in the middle of the show during their marriage.
For audience members that didn't know about this quirky element before watching the show I imagine the first act will be very confusing. However, as I was already familiar with this musical's plot I knew what I was getting myself in for and so I could appreciate this exciting way of exploring the characters to its fullest. Love stories have been done so many times on screen, on stage, in novels, that it's an innovative approach like this one that can add an unexpected spark to an age-old premise.
Not to mention, that the cast for this production is beyond amazing. Samantha Bark rose to fame through I'd Do Anything, the television search for an actress to take on Nancy in the West End revival of Oliver. She has since starred in many West End and Off West End productions, as well as the Les Misérables film and the 25th Anniversary concerts. Known for her powerful vocals, her performance in The Last Five Years was mesmerising to watch. St James Theatre is not a large space, and so to be that close to such an incredible voice felt really special.
Jonathan Bailey isn't someone I associated with musical theatre before seeing him in this, having enjoyed his work on TV-drama Broadchurch instead, but vocally he was a very pleasant surprise. Overshadowed only slightly by Samantha Barks, it was his journey from an excitable student to a more jaded adult that was powerful to watch. And his comedic chops were on point too, especially during the delightful The Schmuel Song, which added a touch of joy and cheesiness to what could've otherwise become a strenuously serious production.
In fact, despite the serious subject matter the majority of the score is very upbeat and poppy. For a virtually sung-through show it's important that it stays consistently fun to listen to the songs, which it does; there isn't a single dud in the entire score. The musical relies heavily on the music to do the storytelling and it works beautifully to show the different directions in which the characters are moving. Particular stand outs were the aforementioned The Schmuel Song, the jazzy Moving Too Fast, and beautifully heartbreaking duet Goodbye Until Tomorrow / I Could Never Rescue You.
The Last Five Years' moving story is complemented well by a killer score and cast, a simplistic but effective lightning and set design, and a highly unique approach to storytelling which makes it such a stand-out show. This is a truly beautiful piece of theatre.