It is an odd thing, but actually not unusual that on the hottest, most sweltering days you can wind up watching a show with wintery or Christmassy scenes, and The Last 5 Years has a few of those. In this case, in a venue so tiny you can see every bead of sweat on a performer’s brow, it all adds to the overwhelming atmosphere of a thoroughly absorbing piece of theatre.
Jason Robert Brown’s The Last 5 Years is a remarkable one-act musical that tells the story of a rather typical love affair in an unconventional way.
A stripped down two-hander made all the more personal by the tiny size of the Actors’ Studio, it is clearly a labour of love for its performers. Stephen Fletcher plays Jamie Willerstein, a cocky young writer who finds the world at his feet. Helen Carter’s bubbly actress Cathy Hiatt is left to reflect how things never came quite as easily to her as they did her beloved husband. And a few tiny first night wobbles aside, this production had much to recommend it.
The two actors take to the stage individually to sing the tale of their relationship – Cathy starting at the end, and Jamie at the beginning; there is only one shared number, when the two stories converge on the couple’s wedding day. It’s a fantastic, original device brought to life with some beautiful numbers courtesy of musical director and pianist Nick Philips.
Fletcher and Carter are no strangers to the Liverpool stage, and have appeared together before (namely in the Everyman’s Dead Heavy Fantastic last year); their dynamic works perfectly here. On a stark set with few props, every little helps (including dressing for a New York winter, which is a lovely detail, even if it seems a bit sadistic in this weather).
As Cathy, Carter brings her not inconsiderable charm to the fore, and excels in the numbers where the cracks in her light-hearted façade start to show, especially songs like A Part of That and the fiendish wordplay of Climbing Uphill, which cleverly combines the character’s audition experiences with an inner monologue.
After the show my companion said he thought he’d never seen Fletcher perform better, and it was hard to disagree. Over the course of the show Jamie evolves from a sweet, wide-eyed graduate to a hardened celebrity, torn between the opportunities coming his way and his marriage. It’s a determined performance that shows he can do the lot (to use a cliché, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry).
It’s all horribly believable stuff, from the giddy excitement of those first dates (Cathy’s I Can Do Better Than That), to the pressures of keeping the faith (Jamie’s If I Didn’t Believe in You).
The Last 5 Years is simply a perfect piece of modern musical theatre. There’s no big show tunes, and the musical motifs are subtle, with no reprises or signature tunes as such. Carter and Fletcher are so mesmerising, the one hour twenty minute running time flies by – the show is beautifully paced and no number outstays its welcome.
The Last 5 Years is on at the Actors’ Studio until August 3.