The Last Five Years – Southwark Playhouse

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer and Composer: Jason Robert Brown

Director: Jonathan O’Boyle

 A gutsy, romantic clash between a lady in virginal white and the wild and wide-eyed rake is hardly revolutionary. Innovation in storytelling technique, however, as well as some stunning musical passages mean this is lifted to be a little more than a regular story of doomed love. But there’s only so much a rejig of chronology can hide. Characters that threaten depth but don’t make the dive, and narrative threads that don’t quite get woven in trip the show up further – meaning despite some really beautiful moments of performance, and smart notes on human faults and compromise the piece as a whole feels lacking, despite some clear merits.

Told with two characters, we are immediately and enjoyably challenged with perspective and knowledge – while she starts her story from the breakdown at the end of a five year relationship and takes us backwards, he starts off in the first flush of love and powers through. Jamie, this literary bad-boy, hyped up and unconcerned with personal development (handily signposted when he sings “But I Keep Rollin’ on” in Moving Too Fast) is revealed as an imperfect match for the ambitious, vulnerable waitress/actress Cathy as we move forward through the piece. The reasons for their marriage failing are probed, and the characters argue their side eloquently through alternating solo songs. They meet just once in the middle on their wedding day.

Jason Robert Brown’s skill at his craft is clear at times. As we progress we can spot distorted mirror images appearing in how the characters act, interact, sing and refer to each other and themselves. They switch in roles of power and influence, a hateful barb evolves into a loving hook (‘Miles and Piles of you  turns from Cathy’s criticism of self-indulgent Jamie in the furious See I’m Smiling into a line about how much she looks forward to his company in the adorable I Can Do Better Than That later in the show). His observations on how love changes, and how the reasons and motivations for partnership can be questionable are acute – backed by terrific music that give us a cracking variety of styles throughout.

These observations, however, are a little too plainly put to be artful. A little too obvious to be nuanced. There’s no arguing that two different people with different needs from a relationship (where she needs trusted support and he wants to “rescue” her) will have different takes on events – but it feels a lot was sacrificed in the characters to hammer home a point, denying us the pleasure of keeping company with decent, interesting people on stage.

Bringing it to life via Jonathan O’Boyle’s zippy, fluid direction is Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch. Both seem to really come alive in a few highlight songs – the fascinating and varied Schmuel Song for him and I Can Do Better Than That for her – though don’t quite keep the energy and verve up throughout the 90-minute runtime.

There are genuine highlights – like the music under George Dyer’s control – but while there’s a lot to hum and chatter about after the show, there’s not much to shout about.

Runs until 28 March 2020

The Reviews Hub Score

Characters let down a technically beautiful work

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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