The Last Five Years, Southwark Playhouse, London ( 4 Stars)
Available online through Stream.Theatre until 29 Nov 2020
Many commentators have noted that Jason Robert Brown’s musical, The Last Five Years, is a perfect show for our socially distant times. It tells the story of a five-year relationship between Cathy and Jamie from their different perspectives as they take turns to present scenes from their courtship and marriage. Famously, Cathy tells her side of the story backwards from their separation while Jamie starts with their first dates. They only properly come together for one beautiful harmonious duet in the middle, the show-stopping “The Next Ten Minutes”. However, in Jonathan O’Boyle’s production at Southwark Playhouse, the two characters’ stories are woven more intricately together. They slip into each others’ narratives, both physically and musically, creating a more complex show than a series of socially distant solos.
This extra interweaving of songs runs the risk of muddying the story, as a character from the future interacts with one from their past, but, overall, it works well, making for a more complex and intriguing experience. We see a broken-hearted Cathy respond to Jamie’s seductive storytelling, while Jamie’s philandering contrasts more sharply with Cathy’s early excitement. The staging is matched by rich, layered orchestrations by musical director George Dyer that knit the songs into a musically rounded whole running straight through for 90 minutes.
Molly Lynch brilliantly captures Cathy’s rollercoaster journey, traced from loss back to upbeat optimism about both her relationship and her attempts at an acting career. Oli Higginson brings plenty of boyish charm to Jamie to keep him sympathetic despite his youthful arrogance about his blossoming literary career and his wandering eye. Both perform Brown’s score to flawless perfection, with choreography by Sam Spencer-Lane that injects dynamism and energy into a show that is essentially just two people and a piano. Thanks to Lee Newby’s revolving set, the pair repeatedly part and come together, moving in and out of the spotlights and shadows through Jamie Platt’s striking lighting design.
Partly opening on the break-up of a relationship, the story is infused with an underlying sadness but also celebrates the joys of love and relationships. Its divergent narratives from differing perspectives question whether any couple can truly know and understand each other, leaving no clear answers to where the blame lies for the break-up. Squeezed between Perspex screens for ultimate social distancing, the masked audience may initially struggle with the new normal of theatre-going, but this stunning, mesmerising show quickly distracts you with its beautiful melodies, compelling story and powerful performances.