Music and Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Director: Jonathan O’Boyle
One of the most heartening things about theatres reopening is that the West End is finally making some room. Yes, the old faithfuls are back, your Phantoms, Mamma Mias and Matildas, but with them come great off-West End and even digital productions that have more than earned the illustrious transfer. Spearheading this charge is producer Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment who follows the acclaimed production of Cruise with a sensational staging of The Last Five Years at the Garrick Theatre.
Jason Robert Brown’s gorgeous two-hander made its first appearance at the Southwark Playhouse before the pandemic and has waited more than 18-months for an opportunity to cross the river. Originally performed in-the-round in the relatively intimate Southwark Playhouse, it is wonderful to see that the switch to a proscenium arch auditorium hasn’t made a jot of difference to this magnificent, utterly consuming show.
Much of that is down to Lee Newby’s set and costume design which utilises the original single spinning piano concept but amplifies the staging for the bigger space as prominent ‘L5Y’ illuminated letters respond to the show’s emotional fluctuations. Director Jonathan O’Boyle weaves the story around these simple fixed structures and uses the full extent of the stage to conjure the faltering relationship between Cathy and Jamie who fall out of and in love in Brown’s alternative trajectory concept.
As the show begins, Cathy is furious after breaking up with husband Jamie, but he is only at the heady beginning of their relationship. Across the 90-minutes, Cathy travels backwards in time and Jamie forward as the audience piece together the nature of their relationship and what happened to two 20-somethings who thought they’d be in love forever.
And while much of The Last Five Years takes a she said/he said approach, Brown’s management of the narrative is far more complex than it first appears, inserting refrains and acted scenes in the middle of songs while finding a synchronisation between the couple which, despite the intoxicating beginning and the bitter, painful end, makes them (eventually) a believable, ordinary couple pulling in opposite directions.
Brown doesn’t stack the cards quite fairly and, although both have their flaws, Jamie is allowed to be less likeable until much later in the musical where a flicker of compassion emerges. Despite running for only 90-minutes, O’Boyle’s production gives every song its own space to breath, expand and enthral, drawing the audience into the character trajectories and through Brown’s richly varied but harmonious score, conducted here by Leo Munby.
Molly Lynch’s Cathy sets the tone, furious and bitter from a break-up she thinks is one sided, grabbing the viewer’s attention with a showstopping Still Hurting. And as Cathy spools backwards, Lynch beautifully captures her growing optimism, bringing a lightness to the more comedic tones in Brown’s music for Cathy which shifts from melancholy ballads to vaudeville turns. And while Cathy is sweet, the performance draws out her willingness to invest her life in Jamie and the flicker of envy that comes between them as his career outpaces hers.
Oli Higginson is just fabulous as Jamie offering a blazing energy in his early numbers as his character falls in love. Brown gives Jamie a rock base with songs like Shiksa Goddess and Moving Too Fast in which Higginson’s vocals are superb. Jamie’s early success as a writer leads to a self-absorption that makes him hard to like but Higginson finds huge reserves of empathy for Jamie in Nobody Needs to Know, leaving him troubled and even shamed by his failures as a partner.
Lynch and Higginson together are sensational, better even than they were at the Southwark Playhouse, and it’s impossible to imagine two greater performances in the West End right now. The Last Five Years is in essence a simple show about a fairly everyday ill-starred relationship, but it shines and shines on the Garrick stage. So, make some room West End because shows like this are finally where they ought to be.
Runs until 17 October 2021