The Last Five Years – Southwark Playhouse, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer and Composer: Jason Robert Brown

Director: Jonathan O’Boyle

It isn’t five years since Southwark Playhouse last staged a musical, but it certainly feels like it. The theatre has pulled out all the stops to get this revival of Jason Robert Brown’s exquisite 2001 chamber piece, The Last Five Years, safely in front of an audience in its larger studio space. Perspex screens separate seats, rows of which have been removed to allow for the correct social distancing and drinks from the bar are served by waiters before the show begins. Some innovations born out of this sad period may not be so bad.

The show could be seen as a song cycle more than a fully formed musical, but director Jonathan O’Boyle strives to defy this description with a lively, inventive production, choreographed by Sam Spencer-Lane. In Lee Newby’s design, a shiny grand piano sits on a revolving stage, surrounded on three sides by the audience (all wearing face coverings of course). The ambience suggests a Manhattan cocktail lounge or, perhaps, a setting for Verdi’s A Masked Ball.

Cathy, a struggling actress begins with the song Still Hurting, expressing anger and pain at the break-up of her five-year relationship with Jamie, a promising novelist. She goes on to tell the story of the relationship in reverse chronological order. In this respect, Brown is emulating Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, realising that foreknowledge of the conclusion lends added poignancy to each of the lyrics. However, in alternating songs, Jamie tells the same story from beginning to end, suggesting to us that, even when they are at their happiest, the couple are never moving along the same track.

Molly Lynch brings out Cathy’s lack of confidence and self-deprecating humour, giving strong renditions of several comic songs. Oli Higginson’s Jamie is full of nervous energy and far more intense; his frustration at Cathy’s lack of interest in his career is palpable, but he is anything bar a cad and his eventual infidelity looks to be a last resort. The structure of the show gives few opportunities to assess the chemistry between the pair, but, at the point where the two versions of the story intersect, they sit together at the piano and duet The Next Ten Minutes, giving us a glimpse of what might have been.

The show, which runs for just over 90 minutes without an interval, is almost entirely sung through, with only a short reading from Jamie’s novel being spoken. Brown’s music, in varied modern styles, matches the tone of each lyric perfectly, demonstrating why he has often been referred to as the new Sondheim. Musical director and arranger George Dyer does a fine job, leading a five-piece band, which includes the piano, played in turns by the two multi-talented actors.

Some could view the shortage of direct interaction between the two characters as the show’s weakness, but Brown’s intention is to illustrate the universally recognisable dichotomy of lives being lived together and, in parallel, apart. In O’Boyle’ production, Cathy and Jamie sing to someone who is not actually there, but always hovering in the background. They appear bound together uneasily inside a fragile bubble, but the truth is that they are, in similar fashion to those of us watching them, encased in separate perspex boxes.

Runs until 14 November 2020

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