The Last Five Years
Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1

Opened 25 July, 2006

From this northern fastness, it's easy to miss goings-on in the rest of the world.  During previous Edinburgh festival seasons, I almost failed to notice the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the attempted Soviet coup the following year. I might have remained oblivious to the arrest of two dozen alleged would-be plane-bombers this month had I not been due to travel by air that day.  Obviously it verges on the ridiculous that such major events might fail to penetrate our Festival goldfish bowl.  Any reviewer worth his salt has to be aware of the wider world, and where required to judge a work against that background.  But when is it required, and conversely when might it be counter-productive to introduce it?

Quentin Letts’ review of The Last Five Years is surprising and in many ways admirable.  From someone who more usually inveighs against what he sees as modish and politically correct contemporary political and/or social considerations, it comes as a bolt from the blue to read a piece opining that at a time when so many serious events are happening in the world it simply feels inappropriate to be watching an American relationship musical.


This works, I think, because Quentin makes no bones about his subjectivity.  He seldom does, but he is more tentative here than usual.  He is feeling out a relationship between theatre reviewing and the contents of the rest of the paper, which is normally taken for granted: for most papers, there is no sense of integration or obligation whatever, whereas in the Daily Mail it can often feel as if Quentin’s reviews (unlike his predecessors’) are prosecuting the paper’s main British political agenda by other means.  But there are occasions when comment is called for by a work’s position within the social or political vista.

I don’t think this is such an occasion, to be honest.  I think The Last Five Years can be faulted on its own terms in a number of ways: its characters, and by implication its audience, are drawn from a particular New York cultural milieu (the sort that relishes lyrics such as "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) which does not translate well to London, never mind in the context of Middle Eastern tensions and so on.  It’s a self-regarding, culturally introspective piece of work in absolute terms, not simply relative to the headlines of the moment.  I think the first duty of a reviewer is to try to pin a work down on its own terms.  Those terms will include social and historical contexts which it explicitly or consciously links with, not necessarily contexts foisted upon it by events.  After all, escapism is always permissible to a certain degree.  The point isn’t that the escapism of The Last Five Years is made culpable by current events, it’s that it is successful only to a limited degree even at the best of times.  Once you’ve sorted that out, you can then go on to note that this is probably not the best of times.


Nevertheless, it is as I say a pleasant surprise to find such connections being made in the Mail of all papers.  Now, I wonder whether in the next issue we’ll be carrying a review of Medea in the light of the abolition of the Child Support Agency?

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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