THE LAST FIVE YEARSTHE ALMA THEATRE, BRISTOL
Is it possible to put on a stage musical with just two actors and a piano player, upstairs in a pub? Brand-new young company Take the Stage think so. It’s a big ask, on a small, featureless black-draped stage, with a set comprising two (non-matching) chairs and a hatstand. This is the story of the progress and eventual failure of the five-year marriage of Jamie Wellerstein, ambitious and successful writer; and Cathy Hiatt, ambitious and much less successful singer and dancer. This is told entirely in individual songs with almost no intervening dialogue – Cathy’s story starting at the end and going backwards in time; Jamie’s going forwards, so that they meet on stage only once, in the middle when the timelines cross. With none of the usual razzamatazz of musicals – the glittery costumes, the fancy lighting, the big cast showstoppers – this is stripped down just to the writing and the skill of the actors and the musician. They better be up to it.
They are. Matt Price as the flawed, career-driven Jamie has to encompass a whole range of emotions, some endearing, some funny, some chillingly unpleasant (One song in particular, about his feelings on getting female attention as a successful but married man, is uncomfortably redolent of the attitudes of a certain presidential candidate.). Emma Webb as Cathy similarly covers a huge range, through joy, pathos, drollery, angry determination, and black despair – the singing and the acting melding perfectly. The confidence, chutzpah and vocal range of both performers never falters in the gusto and attention to detail with which they attack this difficult script. Lauren Davies, whose keyboard has to substitute for the five-piece band that the original off-Broadway production had, doesn’t miss a beat either. There are occasional brief moments early on when the volume of Matt’s voice is too low and the keyboard volume a little too high for the lyrics to come through clearly, but that’s a minor technical point. All in all this is a prime example of what can be done with a shoestring and a load of dedication and talent. An impressive debut.
John Christopher Wood