It is easy to perceive musicals as lightweight feel good entertainment that sends toes tapping whilst leaving deeper emotions unstirred. The Last Five Years, the latest show from Assembled Junk Productions, defies such lazy categorisation, being an absorbing drama that just happens to be in musical form.
Jason Robert Brown's song cycle sets out the decaying relationship between successful writer Jamie (Ricky Johnston) and jobbing actor Catherine (Emily Stubbs) in a subjective manner. Jamie describes events from the start of the affair, while Catherine looks back after the five-year marriage has ended.
Director James Baker stages this challenging material in a daring manner. The intimate venue is set out as theatre in the round, with the audience either side of the performers, book ended by the musicians. Musical director Tom Chester offsets the mellow West Coast singer-songwriter vibe of the guitar and piano with a hint of Yiddish melancholy from the cellos. In a striking move, the vocals are not amplified, bringing a raw element of realism to a format that could easily become artificial.
The vocals are not the only demand that Baker makes of his cast. Although both are frequently on stage together, they reflect the self-absorption of their characters by interacting at only a single key moment. Impressively, both actors excel at the difficult task of, effectively, performing in isolation and are able to project their emotions towards blank space as if to a person and also to create a vocal pattern that defines their character.
Stubbs brings a nervous jittery feel to her vocals that is just right for the desperation underlying Catherine's perception that, although she deserves more, her chances of progressing are fading.
In complete contrast, Johnston's stunning vocals fill the theatre with rich tones that perfectly capture Jamie's confidence and swagger. Both actors have the slightly resentful, even sulky attitude of someone adjusting to the confines of a union.
Stubbs draws out Catherine's grievance that Jamie does not support her career by attending her performances, while Johnston has the shifty guilty sense of resenting the marriage that denies him the chance to exploit his celebrity and sleep around.
The approach taken by Baker is that of a classic tragedy - in the sense that the flaws of the characters make the outcome inevitable. This is not to say that the show is without humour, but simply that it remains true to the intentions of the writer.
From his opening number, Jamie regards Catherine in an abstract manner – a Shiska Goddess or a Muse rather than a human being with aspirations. As the affair progresses, neither can accept fully the position of the other – Catherine wanting to succeed on her own terms while Jamie fails to appreciate why it is not enough for her to share his celebrity. The on-stage isolation of the performers mirrors that of their characters.
The Last Five Years is an exceptional achievement. Rather than regard the limited physical space available as an obstacle, Baker and his cast exploit the intimacy of the venue and draw out the humanity from an already powerful script to create a very moving and beautifully performed show.
The Last Five Years is at the Kings Arms, Salford until 13 April.
- Dave Cunningham