THE LAST FIVE YEARS
Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1
Opened 25 July, 2006
***

It's becoming a Grumpy Old Theatre Critics cliché to complain about amplifying vocals in musicals, but clichés can be true. Miking up your singers is fine for certain genres and for venues above a certain size, but not for a contemporary American relationship chamber-musical in a space that seats fewer than 200 people. When, barely fifteen feet from my seat towards the back, Lara Pulver strides across the stage on a sustained high note but her voice does not audibly move at all still coming out of speakers on either side of the stage something is not right.

Jason Robert Brown's song cycle and Matthew White's production do not have enough magic to discount a grumble such as over-miking. There's a nice Ayckbournian conceit to the structure of the piece: Jamie's songs about the couple's five-year relationship move chronologically forward, Cathy's backward. We begin with her disillusionment and his euphoria, and end with his guilt and her exhilaration. The timelines cross during "The Next Ten Minutes", a number which ends with Cathy singing the questions Jamie has answered at the beginning, and still manages to be a beautiful love duet. There are other, perhaps less intentional contrasts between the two as well. Cathy, a struggling actress, tends to sing about Them as a couple, whereas Jamie, a wunderkind writer, is more self-centred; moreover, Pulver acts when she sings, while Damian Humbley as Jamie performs his numbers in a much broader dramatic register.

Brown's songs are an improvement on the usual contemporary American etc: he writes in a greater variety of genres, and the arrangements include elements of distinct musical Americana which locate the work in a real place rather than the nebulous Atlantic metropolis of so many similar shows. His lyrics are often smart, but couplets such as Jamie's "I left Columbia and don't regreddit/I wrote a book and Sonny Mehta read it" (Mehta being editor-in-chief of Alfred A Knopf and a NY cultural icon) place the piece amid an audience proud of their cultural literacy whilst ready to be self-congratulatorily playful, and I'm not sure that's a demographic that translates even to a London venue as deservedly fashionable as the Menier. It is a good piece of its kind, but not outstanding, and you know there will be another contemporary American etc along in the next ten minutes.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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