Inspired by the breakdown of Jason Robert Brown’s own marriage, The Last Five Years has been a perennial favourite of the musical enthusiast since its premiere in 2002. Thanks to the killer combination of Jason Robert Brown’s dazzling score and the oh-so-relatable nature of the subject matter, the show has spawned countless international productions, with the last West End version opening as recently as 2016. However, in this deluge of iterative reproductions, many have asked if anything fresh can be imbued into the show. With the nature of the musical being so simple (a man and a woman singing, rarely together) and with so many productions being mounted every year, can the show do anything new? The Southwark Playhouse’s 2020 version answers this question with an assertive, unequivocal “yes”: under Jonathan O’Boyle’s sensitive direction, this show has never been better.
The story being told is nothing too zealous: the narrative follows Jamie (Oli Higginson) and Cathy’s (Molly Lynch) five-year relationship, with his version told from the beginning and her version told from the end. In a series of alternating solos, the pair chronicle their break-up, their meeting, his rise into literary stardom, and her struggle to make it on the stage, with the pair only ever duetting at their wedding in the midpoint. It’s a simple, but solid, story. However, the secret to the Southwark Playhouse’s version’s success is its focus: the production is centred completely around Brown’s music, foregrounding its performance and its recital throughout. Indeed, in a marathon-level display of actor-musicianship, the couple accompanies each other on a grand piano centre stage: whichever one is singing, the other is usually providing their accompaniment live.
Fundamentally, this inventive central conceit creates the performative and thematic core of the production. Performatively, each song feels like a concert, with the band on the balcony vibing out to the effulgent deliveries, and with omnipresence of the piano keeping the focus very much on the music. Thematically, it reinforces the duality of the relationship: although the couple is always supporting each other (literally, on the piano), their lack of interaction and communication causes a gulf in the relationship to form, and eventually cause their breakdown. It’s a genius piece of direction by O’Boyle, that illuminates Brown’s score and is effortlessly carried by the cast.
Simply put, Lynch and Higginson are incredible. Both meet the music’s mettle and exceed expectations, providing showstopping vocal performance after showstopping vocal performance. Just when you think the upper limits been reached, Higginson delivers a kinetic explosion of Moving Too Fast, or Lynch provides a version of A Summer in Ohio that is so charismatic that it may become the standard for the song moving forward. In truth, it is impossible to gush about the pair too much: for a show that lives and dies on these central performances, Lynch and Higginson knock it out of the park with gusto. Indeed, the entire team are firing on all cylinders. George Dyer’s orchestration fills the auditorium with verve and vigour, Lee Newby’s minimal set design masterfully supports the story whilst keeping the attention on the music, and Jamie Platt’s lighting reflects the timbre of each moment with prescience; there is not a single weak link in the production.
Whilst the show innately perhaps isn’t to everyone’s taste, with a rigid structure that choses vocal acuity over intense drama, O’Boyle has sculpted a version of The Last Five Years that gets the very most out of Brown’s work. So, although the production doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it does make the ride as beautiful as it’s ever been.