The Last Five Years was one of a huge number of shows that were forced to shut down in the middle of their run. Six months later, it has been remounted for the Covid age. In our latest feature, Samuel Nicholls compares the same production in two vastly different circumstances.

The last show I managed to see before the world came to an end was the Southwark Playhouse’s The Last Five Years. In that long-forgotten time of early March, this new version of Jason Robert Brown’s beautiful musical was warmly received by audiences, earning acclaim from critics, and 5*s from me: after watching it on 7th March, I decided to get tickets to see it again later in the run.

Of course, we all know what happened next. A mere 9 days later, the production announced that they were cancelling the rest of their performances: like everyone else, the reality of the coronavirus hit them fast. What followed was a general dearth of live theatre. Companies have tried valiantly to offer safe alternatives, in the form of live-streams, outdoor performances, and even theatre-film-app hybrids, but the classic auditorium experience wasn’t possible… until now.

On 13th August, , the Southwark Playhouse announced that they would be reopening The Last Five Years and in a “Covid-secure” way. As one of the first shows that existed pre-pandemic to resume performances, the production is being carefully watched by many in the industry, seeing if this fledgling return to business-as-usual succeeds.

Indeed, the show had much to overcome. When The Last Five Years first opened in March, there were around 10 new cases of covid announced a day. Now, at its reopening, it’s in the 10,000s. There’s the fear that auditorium spaces might be unsafe, that their reduced capacity would risk financial viability, or that Covid regulations would impede their ability to perform effectively. These were valid fears – fears that theatres up and down the country are still wrestling with. Theatre used to be considered a comfort; now it’s treated as a risk.

But the most incredible thing? The Southwark Playhouse actually pulled it off. And they’ve done so with an over focus on safety: the whole theatrical experience has been now reframed around Covid.

Even before you arrive at the Playhouse, it’s clear that practices are different. A line of audience members snake around the outside of the venue, patiently waiting for their turn to be let in.  As you join the queue, you can stare into the venue’s large windows: it used to reveal a busy bar filled with a buzzing audience; now, it only shows a handful of front-of-housers ferrying drinks to the auditorium. Once in, there’s no milling about – a strict one-way system is in place, meaning if you overshoot your seat, you’ll have to do another lap of the theatre before you can try again.

Once you take your seat, the safety measures only intensify. Throughout the theatre, masks are mandatory, so audiences are more anonymous than ever. Like many theatres, the Playhouse have capped their capacity at 50%, literally removing half the seats to comply with social distancing. Moreover, like something out of Arrival, each remaining seat is separated by a sheet of Perspex: the see-through plastic separates each audience member, leaving you feeling safely isolated (at one point I made eye contact to the person sitting to my left – I gave him a small wave, which felt appropriate even though he was sitting less than 4 inches away).

After this elaborate process of getting-in, it’s predictable that the performance itself must’ve been equally rejigged. But here’s the real delight: it’s the exact same show it was eight months ago.

Through ‘bubbling’ the cast together, The Last Five Years doesn’t have to practise social distancing, allowing the performances to operate as it used to. On stage, Cathy (Molly Lynch) and Jamie (Oli Higginson) freely interact with each other, as if there isn’t an unprecedented pandemic. Really, watching this production again was just restorative déjà vu: the kinetic explosion of Moving Too Fast, the jazzy glee of A Summer in Ohio, the guttural punch of If I Didn’t Believe in You; The Last Five simply hadn’t changed.

So, is the experience now just the same as it was before? No – it’s better. It matters more.

For all the emphasis placed on theatre’s contemporality, the importance of escapism is often overlooked. It’s brilliant if a show can a fresh insight on some pressing issue, but it’s equally wonderful if it can whisk you away from your worries, even for just a moment. With anxiety sky-high right now and serotonin in short supply, a production’s ability to provide brief respite is as crucial as it’s ever been.

This is what The Last Five Years totally is: an escape. For 90 minutes, the existential threat of lost tests and local lockdowns disappear, and all anyone is thinking about is the bittersweet love-story in front of them. As the pair on stage hold each other close in a raw display of intimacy, I wasn’t thinking “Eek that isn’t two metres…!”; I got lost in the magic of the artform.

Of course, this escapism is a luxury not all theatres can afford. In many way, The Last Five Years is the perfect show for a socially distant world: only two cast members are needed, the staging is incredibly adaptable, and the show is already a perennial favourite so bound to deliver an audience. Across the board, we’ve seen venues gravitate towards these low-risk productions, like the Bridge’s Beat the Devil or the National’s Death of England – Delroy. With audience capacity capped to maintain social distancing, it’s hard to imagine ‘bigger shows’ having the financial viability to return: show-stopping spectacle and riskier ventures may not be seen for a little while.

Nevertheless, in my review of the show back in March, I concluded that “although the production doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it does make the ride as beautiful as it’s ever been” – little did I realise back then that this “ride” would be the getaway so many of us sorely need. The experience of going to the theatre is of course different now – it has to be, for everyone’s safety – but The Last Five Years shows that the artform is as important and necessary and viable as ever.

The Last Five Years runs until the 14th November. Visit the Southwark Playhouse website to book tickets.