A ‘he says-she says’ relationship

The Last Five Years
Written and Composed by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Vikki Anderson
Musical direction by Ryan DeSouza
Performed by Julie Martell and Mark Uhre
Grand Theatre, London
January 19 to February 6, 2010
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

Entertain This Thought!
By Mary Alderson

The Last Five Years, currently on stage at the Grand Theatre in London, is one of those show-business shows that will be appreciated more by those in the industry. A musical with very few spoken words, it tells the story of a five-year relationship between Jamie, a writer, and Cathy, an actress. But even if all audience members don’t identify with their careers, they will recognize the flaws in the relationship.
There is a catch you need to know in order to really understand what’s happening: Cathy starts telling the story in the present, and then she works her way back reliving the last five years. At the same time, Jamie describes their relationship, starting when he first fell in love with Cathy. In Act One Cathy is miserable with the break up of their marriage and her difficulties leading up to it, while Jamie is happy and head-over-heels in love with her as the relationship begins. In Act Two, Jamie is increasingly unhappy with Cathy, while she moves back through their blissful early days together. The action flips back and forth between the two characters, until the middle of the show, when they are on stage singing together at the time of their wedding.
Unless you realize that Jamie’s story moves forward in time while Cathy’s moves backwards, the show could be very confusing. During Act One, I heard murmurs from audience members who did not understand what was happening. This is an example of why theatregoers need to take time to read the playbill before the show or do some homework before they get to the theatre.
In spite of the unusual time shifts, The Last Five Years does an excellent job of exploring a relationship. And even though we know immediately that it ends badly, we are still interested, wanting to know what went wrong and why. Few shows would be able to get an audience’s full attention after revealing the end first. Jamie’s work as a writer is taking off, while Cathy is struggling with her career as an actress. The audience is led on a few twists and turns – who do we blame for the failure of the marriage? Is it because she’s too possessive and jealous, or is he too wrapped up in his writing and the high life that comes with his success? Writer and music composer Jason Robert Brown gives the stories authenticity and his intricate pop/rock music keeps the audience engaged.
Mark Uhre as Jamie immediately makes the audience love him with his giddiness early in the relationship. He is a delightful storyteller in The Schmuel Song. Uhre handles the shift from happy romantic to disenchanted husband very well and expresses himself perfectly in song.
Julie Martell as Cathy breaks our hearts in the first scene with her song Still Hurting. She is excellent as the unhappy, dissatisfied Cathy, but doesn’t match Uhre’s exuberance when the relationship is at its outset. In Act Two, one would assume that she should be happy, but she fails to really demonstrate it in the songs. She provides comic relief in Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence as we hear her thoughts during an audition. Unfortunately, Martell has some difficulty switching from her belting voice to her soft voice in Jason Robert Brown’s complex style of song writing.
The set is interesting – on top is a waterfront pier and they even move across in a boat. It looks great, but I just wish the boat would float along smoothly. The lower set is their apartment building – we see in windows, sometimes through Venetian blinds. I found the fact that they moved in and out through a half-door below one window a little strange. I also appreciated the range in lighting and how it changed with the characters’ moods. However, the shadows in the muted lighting created distracting blotches on their faces.
Jason Robert Brown gives a fascinating inside look into both sides of a relationship. His lyrics express the feelings well and the music is moving. The Grand gives us a credible version of his work.
The Last Five Years continues at the Grand Theatre in London until February 6. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 519-672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593, or visit www.grandtheatre.com .

A member of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association, Mary Alderson reviews shows at area theatres and posts her reviews at www.entertainthisthought.com.