Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS, Southwark Playhouse

Jason Robert Brown, musical, london, theatre

By: Oct. 06, 2020
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Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS, Southwark Playhouse

Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS, Southwark Playhouse Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years has a brilliantly problematic narrative - two souls taking us on a journey of their relationship, but one in chronological order (Jamie), and one in reverse (Cathy).

Historically, the direction of this musical has the actors on stage together at all times, but interacting only once (in the middle, where their stories temporarily align). But Jonathan O'Boyle's version takes it to the upper echelons of directorial genius by creating an actor-muso production where the actors are entwined at all times through the music itself - and now, I can't imagine consuming this musical in any other way.

Let me be clear: The Last Five Years is not a perfect musical. I've always felt slightly uncomfortable at how Jamie's adultery and self-absorption is positioned through a sympathetic lens, rather than from Cathy's perspective, for example. But the brilliance of having Cathy play those famous Robert Brown chords, while Jamie sings about his affair, means that it isn't a linear experience for the audience. We always have two perspectives - it's just that here, Cathy's is delivered through the powerful, bellowing chords of despair coming from the piano.

As they unite through time, reaching the middle of their respective stories (their wedding), they also unite musically with both actors playing the piano together - a perfect melody imbued with the harmony of their lives at that moment.

Speaking of unity, the lighting, sound and set design work beautifully together thanks to the bold choices of Jamie Platt, Adam Fisher and Lee Newby respectively. The use of a revolve, literally and figuratively, prevents inertia setting in for this 90-minute straight-through production. It's a particularly clever technique for a musical that is so reliant on the audience grasping the emotional journey of the characters at different points in time - the revolve quite literally offers us a rotation of viewpoints, and ultimately represents the turbulence of their relationship. Always changing, never settling.

Oli Higginson is a playful Jamie with a boundless puppy-like energy, racing around the stage, driven by his hunger for success. But, importantly, he is also able to tap into the more nuanced, embittered Jamie further down the line. His strong, earthy tenor vocals are made all the more impressive by his ability to maintain them whilst executing this energetic performance.

Molly Lynch's crisp vocals have a beautiful tone and there are hints of superb soprano in there. Her Cathy begins as reserved and at times feels slightly one-dimensional, but as the story reverses, Lynch brings a gleeful awkwardness to Cathy, matching Higginson in playful charisma. "Summer in Ohio" is a particular treat as she embarks on some frantic ukulele strumming as she performs to Jamie over Skype about her disappointing life.

It would do a disservice to view this production through a COVID lens; whilst we're all desperate to wrap our arms around any live theatre right now, The Last Five Years holds up as a piece that is musically, dramatically and conceptually superior to any revival I've seen. It begs the question of what other musicals might benefit from an actor-muso set-up such as this, and I for one would love to see more of it.

The Last Five Years at Southwark Playhouse until 14 November

Photo credit: Pamela Raith


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