‘The Last Five Years’: magnificently bittersweet musical meets London’s most striking safety measures
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After cutting short its run because of you-know-what, Jason Robert Brown’s musical is back in business
Due to the second lockdown, ‘The Last Five Years’ will now have its final performance on November 4. It will be available to stream via stream.theatre between 26 Nov – 29 Nov at various times.
Let’s talk about perspex, baby!
Let’s also talk about this fine musical two-hander, triumphantly returning to Southwark Playhouse six months after it was taken off by lockdown.
But first: perspex!
Every other theatre I’ve been to since the dawn of the age of social distancing has opted to take it literally: they’ve simply sat everybody really far apart from everybody else, slashing capacity to about a third. Southwark Playhouse has come up with an ingeniously simple and initially extremely disconcerting alternative, which means it only has to cut capacity by half: there are now huge perspex dividers set up between audience groups. As I was in a group of one, I effectively watched ‘The Last Five Years’ from an open-fronted plastic box. I tried to swap pleasantries with the person sat about a centimetre to my right, but as perspex is soundproof, our attempted dialogue sounded like something from a Christopher Nolan film. It feels completely dystopian. But it makes sense from a safety perspective. And this is October 2020, what do you expect, normality?
Well, in a sense, once you’ve attuned to the weird stuff, normality is what you get – there is something particularly poignant about watching a classic New York-set musical right now, a reminder of a Broadway that functionally doesn’t currently exist, and even if it did we couldn’t visit it.
Jason Robert Brown’s 2001 smash ‘The Last Five Years’ is a song cycle about the (you guessed it) five-year relationship of couple Cathy and Jamie. It comes with a bit of a concept: his songs chart the relationship chronologically; her songs in reverse. It’s the very definition of bittersweet: as it begins, Molly Lynch’s Cathy is a wan, balladeering ghost; Oli Higginson’s Jamie is an almost unbearably cocky hotshot singing a rocky number about how he’s just met a hot shiksa (that would be Cathy).
By the end he’s lost his ebullient swagger, cooled into something darker and more serious; and she’s gone the opposite way, acquired a luminescence, a daffy charisma that stands in stark constraints with the desperate and troubled figure we met at the beginning. Their happiness converges somewhere around the middle, with their wedding – but everything feels uncomfortably tainted by the knowledge that it’s doomed, that we’ve already seen it end and will soon see it end again.
If ‘The Last Five Years’ lacks the out-and-out brilliance of Sondheim’s devastating reverse chronology ‘Merrily We Roll Along’, the temporal monkey business keeps the tone deliciously ambiguous. Is it a tragedy? I’m not sure that it is: they don’t seem at all suited – to be clear, he is a colossal douchebag. But the two chronologies give it a depth and piquance it might lack if it was simply the story of a relationship that probably wasn’t meant to be. It almost becomes a piece about the mercurial nature of humanity.
Moreover, it’s a terrific production from director Jonathan O’Boyle, reuniting his two original cast members. Lynch is excellent as the more sympathetic of the pair, moving effortlessly through the gears from devastated to neurotic to intoxicatingly carefree. But Higginson almost has the hardest task: Jamie is a self-regarding idiot. Higginson conveys that, but he does so with a lusty rock star charisma that almost steamrollers your objections to the character. Wordy and often eloquent though they are, Brown’s songs work at a visceral level that seems bigger than the characters: a small group of musicians under the eye of musical director George Dyer hammer out orchestral washes interspersed with occasional bowls of electric guitar, or in one memorable scene, a huge chime, hammered by Lynch.
It is a glorious wall of sound and feeling – if there are more enjoyable things you can do while wedged inside a see-through plastic box, I hope I get to experience them.