★★★ | The Last Five Years, St James Theatre

CREDIT: Scott Rylander

The St James Theatre near Victoria has had a poor recent track record with widely panned shows such as Miss Atomic Bomb and the deeply unfunny comedies “Pig Farm” and “Three Lions” denting their reputation.

It’s soon to be re-launched as “The Other Palace” (what were they thinking of with that name?). Things may be looking up with the addition of the duo that brought smash hit “In the Heights” to London (artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills and choreographer Drew McOnie) for their first production. Now acquired by Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Really Useful Company, the intention is that this will be a home for established productions as well new musicals.

Before the name change, we have the 2001 two-hander “The Last Five Years”. It concerns a New York couple and looks at their failing relationship. Failing actress Cathy tells the story backwards from the point where they split up whilst rising star novelist Jamie tells the story from the time they first meet. There’s a midpoint where their stories match up and they join each other on stage. Told in solo songs, it’s a quirky musical that hasn’t dated much in its style since it was written in 2001 and the form almost works. There is something odd, though, about numbers in which the couple sing to each other but are alone on stage with the other half of the relationship occasionally loping through.

Star of Les Miserables, Samantha Barks is a gutsy Cathy and can certainly belt out a tune as well as convey emotion. Good-looking “Broadchurch” beau Jonathan Bailey is almost her vocal equal. There are some moving songs, comedic moments and the odd deft touch of lyricism mixed with some heavy-handed metaphors. The main problem lies in connecting with the couple. They appear. They meet. They split up (and do the same in reverse, if you’re watching Cathy’s numbers). We don’t learn an awful lot more. Cathy is a struggling actress who is late a lot. Jamie writes a book and finds success, ultimately neglecting Cathy. It doesn’t feel enough and there’s a limited amount of depth to the story and characterisation that makes the numbers hard to connect with fully. The set is clumsy, pushed and pulled by stagehands with creaky moving parts jerkily appearing and wobbling a la “Crossroads” motel.

In spite of the flaws: there can’t be many of us who don’t identify with the elation of a fledging relationship or the hideous pain of parting when it all goes wrong. There are some great songs, wry humour and touching moments. There’s a lot to like here (especially the two stars) and hopefully, this is a sign of better things to come (except for the new theatre name).

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The Last Five Years plays at St James Theatre until the 3rd December

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