Review - The Last Five Years at Southwark Playhouse
With just a two-person cast, and a set of stunning songs by Jason Robert Brown that provide each of them with thrilling opportunities to shine and therefore can attract the best performers to play them, its no wonder that The Last Five Years has become one of the most regularly revived musicals around. We're never far from a production somewhere, but from the numerous times I've now seen it in the UK - including at its original British premiere at London's Menier Chocolate Factory in 2006 when it starred a sublime Lara Pulver and Damian Humbley, to stagings at the Theatre Royal Haymarket (on Sunday nights in 2008, with Julie Atherton and Paul Spicer), the fringe Tabard Theatre in 2011 (Lauren Samuels/Christopher Pym) and at The Other Palace (Samantha Barks / Jonathan Bailey) in 2016, amongst others - it's often appeared to be a show that doesn't so much wear its heart on its sleeve as on its technique.
It's a tricky counterpointed seduction, as a couple of twenty-somethings fall in and out of love simultaneously. The relationship of Jamie, an aspiring novelist, and Cathy, who hopes to become an actress, are tracked in a series of alternately haunting and vivaciously evocative songs that are amongst the best set Brown has probably yet written for a story musical (his debut song cycle Songs for a New World comes close, but doesn't seek to tell a continuous narrative).
Each one is a showstopper in itself that captures a particular moment in their evolving lives and relationship, as Cathy struggles with audition failures and Jamie enjoys accelerating successes as a writer. But if it's a familiar story of a couple wrestling with inequalities in their professional lives that drives them apart in their personal lives, Brown has come up with a fresh formal way of making it interesting again: across their five-year relationship, Cathy tells her story in reverse from the breakup (her first song is called 'Still Hurting'), while Jamie's version is told chronologically from the beginning of their relationship (he sings first of finding his 'Shiksa Goddess'). Only in the middle, when their time sequences overlap with their wedding, do they collide (and actually sing together for the only time in the show). Otherwise, the show evolves as a series of solo turns.
But director Jonathan O'Boyle's arresting production pulls off a rare feat of integrating their storylines throughout, as each performer quietly supports the other by offering frequent keyboard accompaniment on the grand piano centre stage. I've seen many actor-musician productions before of other musicals, but never one that so slyly supports and deepens the narrative connections.
Designer Lee Newby puts that piano on a revolve, too, so the stage is kept in constant motion, thus increasing the visual variety of a show that could otherwise prove a little static (Jason Robert Brown's own solution, when he directed the 2016 outing at The Other Palace, was a rather over-literal trucking on and off of location setpieces).
But most of all this production is a triumph for the two young stars of the future who are alternately propelled into the spotlight here. Recent Guildhall graduate Oli Higginson is a brightly confident, handsome leading man in the John Barrowman mould, but with richer emotional depths: the character, with his entitled access to easy success, may be difficult to take, but Higginson makes one actually warm to him.
And Molly Lynch - who was a regular stand-in last summer for the lead role of Clara in The Light in the Piazza at the Royal Festival Hall during Dove Cameron's frequent absences - is a total revelation as Cathy. She has a simultaneous radiance and vulnerability - and the thrilling vocals too - that recall the wonderful Rebecca Trehearn, for which there is no higher praise in my book.
Both actors are more than just singers, though; they are really fine actors. I was suddenly aware of just how much acting the piece requires, not just vocal stamina. They have their work cut out for them sometimes competing against the slightly overamplified four-piece band of George Dyer, visible on an upstairs platform; the band performs Dyer's own lush orchestrations, which are a delight in themselves.