Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years remains relatively unknown to mainstream theatregoers in the UK, so this production at the St James Theatre in Victoria, featuring a well known cast and directed by the man himself no less, is simply a theatrical treat.
This is the definitive production of the musical, with its clever narrative that depicts the relationship between an author and an actress in opposite directions through time. The direction is full of clever touches that reflect the subtle mirror imagery littered throughout as the show's beginning and end connect in circular fashion.
Really, it's a production of simplicity. The minimal set and clear staging allow the actors and the music to take the fore through lucid storytelling - as cliché as that sounds.
And what storytelling! The temporal structure may be abstract, but the raw emotion and intelligent writing are beautiful. There's ambiguity in the characterisation that allows the audience to consider the opposing views of each, even if the climax leans a little too heavily on victim and villain roles. Jamie and Cathy are two flawed humans whose relationship is unbearably tragic and loaded with dramatic irony.
Equally, it's a show about the pressures of career - specifically those in the arts - and how personal gains must be balanced with love. Does struggling in your career mean you lean too heavily on a loved one? Does success make you neglect your partner and take them for granted?
The score, with its delicate string arrangements and amusing Jewish inflections, utterly encapsulates the harmony, discord and rhythms of human relationships. Together with the fluctuating narrative, we feel every moment of pain and joy, the show not only an insular mirror but reflecting our own experiences and insecurities.
That also comes through the outstanding cast. Jonathan Bailey's Jamie offers rich storytelling in each number, whether literally, in diffusing an argument, or grappling with guilt and shame. He is full of such charm and warmth that we can't help but fall for him, tragically, just as Cathy does.
Samantha Banks is the more vocally capable of the two as Cathy, making it all seem so effortless. It's a well-rounded performance that begins gently mournful and broken but soon finds power, with comedy audition songs and flirtation, and ends with wide-eyed innocence that, in hindsight, cuts deep.
This production isn't quite perfect. There are vocal cracks, a lack of polish between the singers and the band, and the sliding set feels clunky. But none of that detracts from the arresting relationship that's laid bare on stage and will consume you for 90 minutes. This is theatre that's moving to the very core.
Watch: The Last Five Years runs at the St James Theatre until 26th November.
Photos: Scott Rylander