Theatre in Wales

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The Last Five Years

Leeway Productions , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , November-23-18
The Last Five Years by Leeway Productions Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years” is a thematic variation on Bernstein’s “Wonderful Town”. That 1953 show had two ingenues trying to make their way in a big and harsh New York. Exactly as in Brown’s piece one youthful character is an aspiring writer, the other a hopeful actor. Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote a memorable song of regret with the repeat line “why, oh, why, oh, why, oh/ Did we ever leave Ohio?” Here knowingly a song bewails the opposite, the dismalness of a Ohio winter.

Formally there is a touch of “Merrily We Roll Along.” In 1981 that show’s backwards-running structure, today’s normality, was too innovative by a long way. Brown runs a reprise, his two characters, Cathy and Jamie, playing out their life-tales separately in both forward and backward sequence. The intersection is in marriage. If it sounds complex it is, but complexity is no bad thing for an art-work.

Director Angharad Lee has created for her version a new dimension of complexity. Its roots date back three years. On 10th December 2015 Creative Wales unveiled its grant awards for the coming year. For Leeway the announcement read “Angharad’s Award will culminate in collaboration with deaf artists to create a 10 minute Opera using British Sign Language as its libretto.” There is nothing like ambition, so no 10 minutes, no opera, but 90 minutes of unbroken performance, performers and musicians never leaving the stage of the beautifully refurbished Theatr y Werin.

This “the Last Five Years” has a distinguishing factor. I did not know what I was seeing, or at least not in full. The action by the four performers incorporates sign language, BSL and SSE, by choreographer, Mark Smith of Deaf Men Dancing. It is conceived as more than just a show, closed captioning and a touch tour of the set available at all venues. Each performance is preceded by a local choir, in Aberystwyth singers from Curtain Call taking the honours.

But an artwork is not going to be judged by the virtue in its intent. The cast is superlative. Anthony Snowden and Michael Hamway are paired as Jamie, Raffie Julien and Lauren Hood as Cathy. The integration of performance between singer and dancer is so tight and taut as to prompt an audience to make comparison with Philip Pullman’s daemon concept in his “Dark Materials”; praise indeed.

“The Last Five Years” has a stylistic austerity to it, closer to a song cycle than an expected musical. The structural form in which the characters never interact means a certain uniformity. The two pairs of performers alternate predictably. This predictive form is uplifted by two factors. There is plenty of visual difference, costume change taking place regularly in a bright four-colour palette. And each song-sequence in itself is propelled by the vitality of the acting, dancing and singing.

A discussion session follows the performance, the questions thoughtful. “What do you hope audiences get out of it?” runs the final one. “Hmm”, says the director, “ a difficult one”, and passes it to her cast. One picks up the baton and replies with a single word. It is the very best of words.

“Joy” says Michael Hamway.

The company includes David Laugharne musical director, Becky Davies designer, BSL translation Daryl Jackson and Sami Thorpe. “The Last Five Years” is supported by Wales Millennium Centre in partnership with Blackwood Miners. It continues to Caernarfon, Blackwood, Llanelli and Merthyr Tydfil.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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