The important thing about The Last Five Years is that I don’t feel like it’s the show’s job to tell you who’s at fault or what went wrong. It’s just a story that has to be told about two people who weren’t supposed to be together.
Samantha Barks on Keeping Cool in Front of Jason Robert Brown, Not Dissing Russell Crowe & Starring in London's The Last Five Years
Samantha Barks came to worldwide attention as Eponine in the film of Les Miserables but has an extensive list of stage credits including Les Miz, Aladdin and City of Angels. The 26-year-old Isle of Man native can now be found in the intimate confines of the St James Theatre playing Cathy opposite Jonathan Bailey’s Jamie in The Last Five Years, the Jason Robert Brown song cycle first seen off-Broadway in 2002. Barks took time during rehearsals to talk about fulfilling a longstanding dream.
Is this a show you knew already? Did I know it? [Laughs.] I’ve been obsessed with this show basically for years! When I first heard it, I thought, “God I’d love to play this part” [of Cathy.] That was my teenage dream: I could literally sing the entire score myself.
What was it like when you went to audition for Jason Robert Brown for this production? When I met him, he asked me whether I was familiar with the show, and I basically had to be as cool as possible.
Why do you think you responded so intently to the piece all those years ago? It was because the songs felt like contemporary pop music to me. I was 13 or something at the time, and it was one of the first musicals I’d heard to have that contemporary sound.
Weren’t you too young to know firsthand what Cathy was going through? Yes, and what’s funny is I remember my heart aching without ever having had a relationship myself. I think I just thought, “Oh, men!” as you do when you’re a teenager. I was obviously on Cathy’s side.
Have your thoughts changed with time? I guess what’s interesting as you get older is that you completely see both sides of [Jamie and Cathy’s] relationship. It seems clear to me that the intention is there for them to love one another, but life directs them apart. It’s all very complex.
What do you make of the structure of the show, which tells Cathy’s story in reverse? It’s so intriguing to start in the place you would normally finish, but the beauty of Jason’s writing is in the simplicity of it. And it’s a weird thing, you know, when you have a breakup and you’ve got to get to grips with all the memories, and that’s kind of how her story works. We travel back to the place where she starts to crumble.
Does that mean you and [co-star] Jonathan Bailey are in different emotional places at different times? What we’ve noticed is because Cathy’s story ends at a more hopeful beginning, I step out of rehearsals every day with a spring in my step whereas Johnny, as Jamie [whose story moves forwards], comes in first thing all springy and happy and by the end, he’s in bits!
What’s it like starting the show with a song as mournful as “Still Hurting”? Every beat of that song is linked so deeply to the emotion that you just have to ride it. But it’s written so beautifully that it’s not hard to go to the places [the song] asks you to go.
How did it feel to be starting in on this just as you were turning 26? I just think of it as such a great birthday gift! It’s like, what would my 13 or 14-year-old self think if she knew that on my 26th birthday, I would be rehearsing with Jason Robert Brown? She wouldn’t believe me. It was as if that girl then was saying, “Oh God, I want to talk about the show all the time,” whereas I look at her and think, “but you hadn’t had a relationship!”
Was it hard to arrive at the evenhandedness you now feel towards the characters? Well, I’m a woman, obviously, so you think that’s going to determine your point of view. But what I’ve come to discover about the show is that we’re not just one character or the other: it’s not just a generalized man or woman. These are complex, sensitive people who have contrasting egos the way everyone has. I’m sure most people feel at times as if they have been Cathy or Jamie.
Does it feel like a competition, or, at least, a relay race? What’s interesting once you get into the flow of it is that it really isn’t “my song/your song.” It feels more like passing the baton as part of one big monologue, and I have to say the time flies by so quickly.
How does it feel playing an American—or at least this American? That’s interesting because I’ve not done a New York accent, though heaven knows I do love that place. There’s such energy about it, and a buzz. Everyone’s always in such a rush.
Do you recognize yourself in Cathy, who after all is also an actress? I do. I mean, I moved away from the Isle of Man to London myself so very much empathize with her moving to the big city to fulfill her dream. What happens then is that she finds herself alongside Jamie as these two very ambitious people in a place that is very right for him and not so right for her.
What has been the impact of the recent Anna Kendrick/Jeremy Jordan film? The thing with the movie is that they brought it up to now whereas we’re doing the original script, which is set in 1993. But hopefully the film allows the show to reach another audience—I always think without films of some of these musicals, so many people wouldn’t know the shows at all.
But doesn’t the movie make a snarky reference to Russell Crowe, your co-star in the Les Miz film? Yes, but we don’t have that in our show. We’re sticking with Linda Blair.