Shotgun Theatre’s most recent production saw the musical theatre society take on Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years. The play presents a classic story: boy meets girl, they fall in love, things turn sour, they fall out of love. Nothing new there. However, the play’s unconventional temporal structure sets it apart. The production follows Jamie from the beginning of his relationship with Cathy to its demise, while Cathy’s story is told in reverse order, from the break-up to their first meeting. The pair do not interact throughout the play, except for the powerful middle scene, in which they finally inhabit the same emotional and physical space, only to diverge once again for the play’s second half.
With an already complex plot line, the directors’ (Ben Parsons and Alice Austin) decision to cast not one, but three Jamies and Cathys was a bold one. Ultimately, it was a decision which allowed a multifaceted characterisation throughout the play. The cast handled the multiple casting maturely, resisting the temptation to copy one another’s portrayal of their character. Instead, their individual styles and personalities shone through, granting Jamie and Cathy a complexity of character which would not have been achieved otherwise.
Furthermore, this casting choice meant that direct comparisons of Jamie and Cathy as they progressed or regressed were possible. Lucas Bailey’s light-hearted, festive “Schmule Song”, in which he asks Cathy: “have I mentioned today how lucky I am to be in love with you?” contrasts painfully with his later song, “Nobody Needs To Know”, which reveals his infidelity.
The play opens with Sophie Harrison’s portrayal of Cathy, reeling from the break-up. Harrison’s soaring voice reaches up effortlessly towards perfectly executed high notes, while retaining the heartache felt in the softer notes of “Still Hurting”. Brown’s score is played faultlessly by the six-piece band which perfectly accompanies the emotional leaps between Cathy and Jamie. Discordant strings and the minor key slip into major for Harry Butterwick’s jaunty entrance. The audience is lifted by his lively rendition of “Shiksa Goddess” in which he tackles the song’s demanding final notes with ease.
Alma Crespo’s entrance brings us back to the relationship’s melancholy conclusion. Crespo plays Cathy’s one-sided conversation with an absent Jamie with heartfelt longing for reconciliation, yet, it is her post-interval performance of “Climbing Uphill” in which she excels. Her comic timing is impeccable as she negotiates the song’s quick-changing style and tempo.
Jamie returns to us with “Moving Too Fast”, a song title which, sadly, somewhat reflects Joey Saunders’ rendition. Saunders struggles with the fast-paced jazz piano and his New York accent suffers as a result. Slower songs such as the closing number, “I Could Never Rescue You”, serve Saunders far better, allowing him to show off his classically trained vocals.
Emily Johnson’s “A Summer in Ohio” combines the melancholy of Cathy’s earlier appearances with her hopeful later moments. Johnson has the audience laughing with lines like “it wouldn’t be as nice as a summer in Ohio where I’m sharing a room with a former stripper and her snake: Wayne”. Her voice finds every note without a hint of strain, concluding with an outstanding final verse which is met with rapturous applause.
The play’s final scene brings all six cast members on stage for Cathy’s “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” sung alongside Jamie’s “I Could Never Rescue You”. It is in this number that the staging – a clock face painted onto the floor with the audience seated in a circle around it – came into its own. The cast forms a circle, the Jamies on one side, and the Cathys on the other, facing him. The two songs mingle as happier times co-exist with the pain of the failed relationship. A grin is plastered across the Cathys’ faces, while the Jamies are solemn.