The Last Five Years
Accessibility to theatre, specifically musical theatre, is not something I have ever particularly considered, but in 2018 how can it be something that isn’t regularly discussed? Hearing culture dominates theatre and cinema in an era where we can and should make this medium more accessible and reach out to more people. Leeway Productions is a theatre company at the foreground of pushing accessibility and opening more questions around this. Touring to a multitude of varied theatres, Leeway has re imagined ‘The Last Five Years’ in a fully accessible performance for hearing impaired audience members.
In-keeping with their goal to reach out to as many people as possible, to connect with the community of each location they were touring to, they reached out to local choir/ theatre groups to perform a choralture curtain raiser. This was a beautiful mash up of the songs in the musical, paired with sign language. As Vice President of Curtain Call Musical Theatre Society, I had the opportunity to perform this along with the other amazing members of my society. It was extremely interesting to be working with small actions that have specific meanings, as we are much more used to big dances using our whole bodies. I have a limited knowledge of sign language, but from the few classes I did take, I am aware that many of the actions in sign language are very similar despite meaning completely different things. Therefore, the actions must be precise and most importantly, your facial expressions communicate a lot and can indicate what you mean along with the action. I was very proud to be a part of a movement to increase accessibility and to have learnt a new form of communication.
Their performance of ‘The Last Five Years’ directed by Angharad Lee, using both British Sign Language and Sign Supported English, was truly beautiful. With the band visible in the back of the stage, the cluttered set, and the cardboard boxes (printed with the amount of days that had gone by) that represented the timeline of the story, they definitely achieved their goal of the set telling the story on its own. The most striking part of the performance was their choice to have two actors play Cathy and two actors play Jamie. Lauren Hood and Michael Hamway performed as the main characters, singing all of the songs, and Natasha Julien and Anthony Snowden, acted as echoes, performed through dance. The echoes acted as a moral anchor, in Cathy’s case, telling her that the way he was treating her was wrong and, in Jamie’s case, telling him that he needs to change or he will lose her. They were each given free reign to interpret the character individually, they never had to decide on one emotion or reaction to anything. They said that this is because feelings aren’t binary, and we can have multiple emotions at once. Lauren and Michael acted the characters realistically whilst using sign language and Natasha and Anthony over exaggerated and dramatized each movement. They used a combination of sing language and balletic movements to physically represent the story, including a very emotional duet dance piece that represented how special their love was at the point of their marriage. Each song was created physically using practices from Frantic Assembly and DV8, two theatre companies that are heavily based in physical theatre.
The structure of the performance was also very striking, Cathy started the performance at the end of the narrative, having experienced all the heart break and then working backwards, to a time where she was extremely happy. Jamie, started the performance at the beginning of the narrative and working forwards to the breakdown of their relationship. Having the narrative travel in the way that it does, means that Jamie is set up to be bad the guy, as he is overly happy and care free at the beginning, which makes him seem cruel contrasted to the pain she is clearly experiencing. The two characters never meet on stage except for the moment of their marriage, this was a clever play on the fact that even when the characters interact, they don’t listen to each other anyway. Therefore, having them constantly separate, highlights their lack of communication and understanding of each other.
Having the BSL and SSE implemented into this piece of musical theatre meant that a larger range of people could come and see the performance and therefore experience something that we perhaps take for granted. It also celebrates this beautiful language and gives it more exposure as a form of communication. I believe that it is just as important for us to learn sign language as it is to learn foreign languages, so that we can bridge the gap between the hearing impaired and the fully hearing. Performances like this one, have clearly shown that we can make theatre more accessible and still create a gorgeous and emotional performance. I have discovered that I sometimes can be quite an impatient theatre watcher, I can sometimes find myself drifting off into thought of what I have to do tomorrow and what work I need to do tonight. However, during this performance I can honestly say I was fully immersed for 1 ½ hours and was genuinely shocked when it ended because it did not feel anywhere near that in length.
Ultimately, after attending the post show talk, the cast and director explained that they didn’t want the audience to feel anything in particular or take away anything from the performance. They simply want each audience member to take whatever they want from it and to get people thinking. The tour is now unfortunately over but keep looking out for Leeway Productions, they are a fantastic and innovative theatre company.