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The Last Five Years, review of Jason Robert Brown's production at the St James Theatre

Under the new ownership of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, The St James Theatre will be re-branded The Other Palace Theatre in the New Year, and plans to become a full-time home for the development and production of new and old musicals. Ahead of that, its new planned identity gets a welcome shot in the arm with a new production of Jason Robert Brown's 2001 chamber song cycle musical The Last 5 Years, originally premiered in Chicago, then transferring to off-Broadway the next year and receiving its British premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2006.

This exquisite, diminutive show packs a big personal punch: it feels written from the heart, telling of a youthful romancing between a young literary writer and an aspiring actress; Brown's own first failed marriage was also to an actress, as he was seeking to make his own mark as a rising composer.

But Brown spares no punches in portraying the self-interested ambitiousness of the writer and the neediness of the actress, and if neither character is particularly likeable, they sing yearningly of the chasm between their initial attraction and the slow fade of hostility and resentments that erupts between them. It was probably a relationship doomed from the off.

The show itself pulls off an interesting exercise by travelling in two directions at once: we watch the woman rewinding from the end of the relationship to the beginning, while the man goes forwards from its beginning to the end. They only interact and meet in the middle when the time sequences overlap with their marriage.

That possibly overcomplicates a very simple story, but it also lends it more texture and tension. Brown's own production undermines it a bit with a rather over-literal parade of sets that are trucked on and off to re-set different locations; but a sublime onstage six-piece orchestra led by musical director Torquil Munro on keyboard offers more hauntingly sure support in the yearning strings of violin, two cellos, guitar and bass.

It is also elevated by two constantly fascinating performances by Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey, who sing the songs beautifully -- but more importantly, act them spellbindingly, too.

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