29 March 2018
Florence Bell has five years worth of questions
Questions that I sometimes find myself asking plays (especially if I’m not enjoying them): what are you for? Why you? Why here? Why now?
Those why questions that already exist around the work are intensified at NSDF. It’s the pressure of putting work in front of other people, of the fact that you’ve been selected, of that signifier "National" that precedes the other more defining words (Student, Drama, Festival).
Sometimes, when I’m bored, watching a musical, I wonder what the reaction would be if it was the equivalent kind of play. In this case, probably something from the late noughties/early 2010s by a white male playwright, fostered by the Royal Court, pretending he’s experimenting with form without actually doing any experimenting. Something that would be good for passing the time. But not much more. The play equivalent of this musical would not be lauded in the same way – I’m not trying to diminish the difficulty of achieving a production as slick as this one, but I just don’t get musicals. I don’t understand why I’m meant to clap at the end of every song. I don’t understand why there are so many costume changes. I don’t understand why so many performers have that 'I’m being charismatic beyond my character' vibe. I have seen good musicals before, but I get the impression they are a drop in the pool. On the other hand, I think most really excellent plays, the properly life-changing one, only make up a small drop in the pool too.
So I’m going to try and judge this from the perspective of someone who gets musicals.
I didn’t like it.
In this production the plot of The Last Five Years somehow becomes so murky and convoluted that it is literally incomprehensible. Nothing makes sense. Why do they change clothes? What are they even saying?
I’ve googled the musical and discovered what the plot is. Apparently it’s this chronological but reverse-chronological thing; not that it really matters at this point.
I just don’t understand why I’m supposed to care about these people. It’s not that you can’t tell this sort of story, it’s just that it doesn’t justify itself, never attempts to answer the why question. I went in with a receptive mind and I got nothing back. I think all of this is sort of underpinned by the fact that I consider myself not-a-stupid-person and expect to be able to understand a musical but to not necessarily be able to understand some very complex performance art. It might be snobbery. But, readers, the musical was still not very good. It’s so performance focused, all about the singing, and not really about anything else. I genuinely don’t know what I’m supposed to make of it, because I didn’t understand it and I didn’t enjoy it. What then?
Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca