The Last Five Years
Opening to a choir of 30-40 people, Jason Robert Brown’s stunning and legendary score filled the Weston Studio in Wales Millennium Centre beautifully and left me with goose-bumps from the start. The show, produced by Leeway Productions led by Angharad Lee, incorporates a high level of inclusivity and promotes accessibility through having an involvement with the deaf community. The role of Jamie was played by Michael Hamway, who sang and acted the role, and Anthony Snowden, danced and signed the role in line with British Sign Language standards. Similarly, the role of Cathy was sung by Lauren Hood, and danced and signed by Raffie Julien.
Knowing this, I was concerned that having four actors on stage, instead of the original two, would cause the show to become chaotic and busy but I needn’t have worried: the performance was exquisite and no more complicated than the original production. The sign-language choreography was stunning, emotional and meaningful, which really aided in telling the story.
A key reason as to why I loved having multiple actors playing one character was that it allowed characters to express more than one emotion at a time. Without ruining the story, at the start of the show Cathy is in a common situation where emotional reactions can include but are not limited to: sadness, anger, confusion and loneliness. In this number, I found that Lauren Hood was sad in her expression of Cathy, while Raffie Julien expressed more anger. I found that this increased the relatability of the show and empathy I felt for the character as it is rare for us only to feel one emotion at a time and this production allowed for multiple expression.
This double-casting also allowed us to see more depth to characters. In a scene where Cathy is angry, Julien tears a book to pieces, whereas Hood does not. I found this relatable to scenarios where you are so angry you want to break something but in reality, you don’t do anything. Having multiple actors use different mediums to tell the same character’s story and emotional development let us see more of what was going on in character’s heads and using the unspoken language to do this was genius.
Because the two performers in each role were expressing characters slightly differently, this meant that director Angharad Lee was keen to not make this a show for hearing people, and then translated for the deaf community using British Sign Language, but make it a show for both audiences. As a bilingual theatre, Wales Millennium Centre became the perfect showcase for the opening of this show, because the theatre strives to ensure that Welsh speakers are treated to Welsh theatre and culture, not just existing English-written shows and then translated. Therefore, the deaf community was treated to theatre written partly for them, not as an after-thought. I felt that the inclusivity in this bilingual performance was a wonder to watch.
Michael Hamway as Jamie, I thought was superb; he created the raw character that I love to watch and it seemed effortless on his part. Jamie goes through a range of emotions and development in the show and Hamway did a great job with this character development. His voice was powerful, dynamic and it really drew me in. His rendition of “Moving Too Fast”, however, was not my favourite performance, but I think this was due to a small orchestra that was unable to help him carry the song to fill the Weston Studio in the same way as the rest of the performance. Other than that, I couldn’t fault him.
While I must say that Lauren Hood was generally brilliant, I felt at times her voice wasn’t strong enough to sing certain songs. Following on from Anna Kendrick who played the role in the 2015 movie, and Samantha Barks who played the role in London at The Other Palace theatre in 2016, I can appreciate that it is not an easy soundtrack to sing and she had some fairly big shoes to fill. Her performance of “A Summer In Ohio” was disappointing, as was “I Can Do Better Than That”. However, performances of other songs such as “See I’m Smiling” and “Climbing Uphill” were seamless and she brought a lot of humour to the role during her audition piece “A Miracle Would Happen / When You Come Home To Me”.
The relationship between Raffie Julien and Lauren Hood as Cathy was infectious and believable. The two parts of Cathy were like best friends and I left the theatre feeling the need to remind myself to be my own best friend! The relationship between Anthony Snowden and Michael Hamway, however, was less so. Their portrayals of Jamie as a character were too opposite to attribute them to the same character; Hamway was a powerful, driven and determined Jamie, whereas Snowden was none of these things and was, instead, comical.
This wasn’t aided by the mismatch of their costumes as Hamway was dressed in smart business suits or trousers and a jumper, whereas I can only describe Snowden’s costume as pyjama like. The two versions of Jamie were simply inconsistent and didn’t produce the effect that the two Cathy’s did. In addition, the two women were often dressed very similarly, so I remain confused as to why the men were dressed so differently.
Despite this mismatch of costumes, I felt the colour choices were superb. Cathy, always in a fiery and passionate red, contrasting to Jamie, always in a mellow blue, showed the audience how opposite they are. The subtle set really helped this colour choice to stand out because the audience was not distracted by a busy environment, but instead were quietly invited into Jamie and Cathy’s lives through the use of a couple of desks, a handful of boxes and a stairway.
One thing that left me disappointed was a great piece of stage work not being followed through. The narrative of the show is unchronological, with Jamie telling his side of the story from year one to year five of their relationship, and Cathy going from year five to year one. Initially, boxes were used to indicate which year we were in which I thought was a genius idea because, while I know the story very well, there are audience members who don’t. However, the upkeep of this idea was poor because while at one time I could see a box indicating we were in year one, I could also see one that indicated we were in year three. Then, after 20 minutes the idea was simply abandoned. I was heartbroken because I thought this was a fantastic idea to help the audience understand the narrative and I hope that with some further direction the idea gets polished and brought back.
Additionally, during the show, Jamie and Cathy rarely sing to each other on stage but instead sing to an invisible spot where the audience assume the other would be. It indicates how the couple don’t really hear what the other is saying and can work effectively if well executed. However, on occasion, each of Hood and Hamway forgot where they had mentally placed their counterpart on stage. For example, at times Cathy was singing to an invisible Jamie who was downstage left and the next minute was singing to an invisible Jamie who was downstage right with no transition in between. Although I recognise this is nit-picking, it was a shame for me as it took authenticity out of the show.
Despite these slight critiques, I can wholeheartedly say that I loved this production. One of my favourite scenes was during the song “The Next Ten Minutes” where the dancers took centre stage and the singers were on the side. What I found especially powerful about this was that I paid more attention to the dancers than the singers, and through fantastic choreography from Mark Smith and beautiful movement, expression and passion from Snowden and Julien, dance was the main medium that told this part of the story for me. I think this echoes and anchors Angharad Lee’s aims in this production as it shows audiences that theatre can be an accessible medium for all because just through a strong visual we can all understand the narrative. The contemporary and modern dance was eye-catching and, on occasion, quite literally breath-taking.
In general, I thought this production was a breath of fresh air with its revolutionary ways of making theatre accessible to all and its combination of multiple mediums to tell a story. I cannot express how much I want everyone to see this show, not only because I love the story and the score, but I think it would be a wake-up call to many other producers about increasing their inclusivity and access, and it would delight all audiences.