One of the last pieces of theatre I managed to see before the COVID-19 lockdown decimated normal life (and made live performance a distant memory) was the Southwark Playhouse’s rendition of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years: that 5 Star production made the most out of the traditional theatrical experience, utilising a live band, intricate effects, and a grand auditorium to support the narrative. Now, three months and one global pandemic later, The Last Five Years is back and, in isolation, gone is the classic theatrical experience, and in its place is two performers self-recording their parts from the comfort of their own home. It may not be a perfect production, but considering everything, it is utterly fantastic.
Conceptually, if any musical could work in this socially-distant way, it’s The Last Five Years: based on Brown’s own marriage, the narrative follows Jamie (Danny Becker) and Cathy’s (Lauren Samuels) five-year relationship, with his version told from the beginning and her version from the end. In a series of alternating solos, the pair chronicle their break-up and meeting, his rise into literary stardom, and her struggle to make it on the stage, with the pair only ever duetting at their wedding halfway through. Apart from this marital midpoint, Jamie and Cathy never need to exist in the same place, allowing Becker and Samuels to perform their numbers without getting bogged down in the logistics of trying to sing over Zoom…!
Indeed, Becker and Samuels are undoubtedly the highlights of the production. Aided by Brown’s acclaimed score, the two offer knock-out performances, delivering the same dazzling display from their living rooms that you’d expect in a theatre. Complete with bold belts and rambunctious runs, both performers hold no punches, getting the very most out of the sublime music: the beautiful combination of Brown’s score and their performances alone makes the £8 ticket price seem like an absolute bargain – for those who haven’t seen The Last Five Years before, you probably won’t ever find a better introduction.
However, pre-existing fans may leave a little disappointed. Directed by Samuels in her directorial debut, the production toys with adding a fresh spin on the popular musical, initially framing the production as a Zoom call… before quickly abandoning this idea and having the duo perform as normal, which is a shame because that burgeoning idea is ingenious. At a time where everyone is relying on web conferencing to stay connected, the use of the Zoom format could’ve elevated the production, weaving topical issues into Brown’s script.
Moreover, there are, unfortunately, moments of uncanny valley, where the actors suddenly start lip syncing to a pre-recorded track rather than singing live. Although, thankfully, these moments are few and far between (usually when the actors are outside), they’re common enough to break the already-flimsy realism of the piece.
Overall, although Samuels’ direction may not be the most adventurous or daring, the production nevertheless celebrates an industry under attack and provides a wonderful, powerfully-performed escape to its audience. Is this production ground-breaking? No. But is it worth way more than £8 ticket price? Undoubtedly yes.
The Last Five Years is available online until June 27th – see The Other Place’s website for more information