Semi-professional musical theatre company What We Did Next are getting better with each production. Megan Key finds their latest show as ambitious and moving as ever….
The Last 5 Years is a challenging production. Not due to any particular set or defined casting but in the story itself. The telling of a relationship from two sides set in two different time frames means the characters spend most of the time on stage alone communicating with an empty space instead of their loved one. It is also a musical theatre favourite.
Jason Robert Brown is renowned for his melodies and his songs are audition favourites for any budding actor, hoping to make their mark and show their vocal prowess. Bearing all this in mind a newcomer could easily be excluded by the show itself just as much as a devotee could be left in the dark if the vocals and performance don’t live up to their own standards or that of the Original Cast Recording. It is with some trepidation that one watches the show, produced by an amateur theatre group nonetheless, but it does not disappoint.
Everything from the staging to the lights is focused on telling this story which is so very familiar to anyone who has been in a relationship. The stage is bare save a wooden pier; two doors and a luminous clock but it is in its simplicity that it is most effective. Instead of attempting to emulate the original production or the thousands since, Director Elen Royles has made use of the round in the Kazimier and lets the actors speak for themselves — which they do, with confidence.
It is a challenge for anyone to play someone at different ages in their lives, even more so for someone younger than the character’s age. But Natalie Hayes played Cathy Hyatt with a maturity that betrayed her 20 years. Opening the show with the heartbreaking Still Hurting, Hayes had the audience emphasizing with her pain as she lamented the end of the relationship.
Adrian Sanderson similarly captures the youthful Jamie with an infectious energy that contrasts Cathy’s more sombre tones. He ages naturally in the part and offers a maturity in his performance that is not just believable but full of truth. His character takes darker turns than Cathy yet you do not dislike him, which could so easily happen. You can see his struggles and it is a credit to Sanderson that this turmoil is understood by the audience.
Both actors play their part with strength, while there were are few slightly off notes what becomes clear is that this is a) probably down to first night nerves and b) irrelevant. Their acting remains strong and really that is most important. As a female audience member it is perhaps easier to sympathise with Cathy but Sanderson played Jamie’s frustration with excellent skill. It was clear the life and energy of his younger self had be dulled somewhat somewhere along the line in their five year love affair. Hayes offered a much more relatable Cathy than even the original recording. The songs often come across as quite whiny but Hayes was a delight to watch, funny and self –deprecating she offered a new dimension to the part that has been well worn in theatres across the country.
The Kazimier offered an excellent venue, and its intimacy added to the relationship the audience had with the characters. It was lovely to see the venue in such a stripped down manner, and also as a theatre a purpose for which it is criminally underused.
The simplicity of the production played to its strengths, with sound and lights aiding the performance, as did the set. The luminous clock helped make sense of the more challenging Schmuel Song, but it also served as a reminder of the issue of time in their lives. The band was flawless, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were listening to the CD if you didn’t look up and see the six piece band led by MD Robert Owen overlooking the show.
For What We Did Next, The Last 5 Years is a departure. It is their most professional show to date, be that due to the professional training of the actors or simply the manageability of a two man show. It is a polished piece of work that is worth much more than the £8 price tag. And while a musical about the breakdown of a marriage might be a hard sell, what is clear is that this piece is about so much more. It is about the hilarities of relationships, of growing older, making decisions and anyone in their 20s or older will see something of themselves in these two characters.
But it is a credit to the company, that as an amateur theatre group they can put on something as delightful, insightful and polished as this. The audience was clearly lost in the story and came out talking about the characters as well as singing the songs. For WWDN, and any theatre company, that is when you know you have put on an excellent show.
The Last 5 Years is on at The Kazimier for a final performance tonight (Friday, September 16). For tickets and more information, visit www.wwdn.co.uk.