'The Last Five Years' at Southwark Playhouse soars even higher after shutdown

The Last Five Years at Southwark Playhouse
Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Tuesday, 06 October, 2020, 19:54
Review by: 

The last five years? Hell, what about the last seven months? That’s how long it’s been (give or take a week) since Jonathan O’Boyle’s terrific Off-West End revival of Jason Robert Brown’s musical theatre mainstay saw its original run truncated by Covid-driven lockdown. In fact, I was among the audience on that fateful Monday (March 16) when L5Y, as this show is famously known in shorthand, was one of the very few shows to perform that evening, the rest of London theatreland having gone dark in response to government dictates announced just hours before. 

The audience that March evening knew what the production’s blazing cast did not, at least not yet: that their show was about to be tossed on to the scrap heap, or so one had every right to fear. Particular huzzahs, therefore, to Southwark Playhouse for bringing back a staging that has in every way been enriched by the passage of time, and for finding a way to adjust the fact of playgoing itself to the stringent requirements set in place due to the pandemic. Those range from a rigorous one-way system in place upon arrival at the venue to screens erected between (some) seats so as to protect strangers from undue intimacy. Drinks are brought to your table in the bar, and the after-performance buzz was inevitably diluted by an inability to mingle.

Who cares, though, about the post-show vibe when the play more than ever must be the thing? I date back with this musical to its 2002 Off-Broadway premiere with Norbert Leo Butz and Sherie Rene Scott, which is to say before a time when Brown’s structurally audacious song cycle had become the musical theatre touchstone that it remains to this day. (London, in particular, returns regularly to this title, including a lockdown version seen virtually over the summer that was directed by its female lead, Lauren Samuels; a starry revival a few years ago paired 2019 Olivier winner Jonathan Bailey, of Company renown, with Samantha Barks under the direction of Brown himself.)

Maybe it’s just our current thirst for theatre in whatever form, or perhaps the performers feel a renewed sense of occasion in simply being able to take to a stage when so many of their colleagues remain out of work. Whatever the reason, the production this time around possesses a newfound emotional amplitude that is something to behold. “Everybody bleeds,” Oli Higginson’s Jamie Wellerstein remarks late in a piece that tells his story forward even as that of his eventually discarded spouse, Cathy Hiatt, is told backwards, from its wounded finish through to the eager and avid beginning of a romance that across the five years of the title has gone seriously sour. (In many ways, a sprightly audition sequence included, Brown’s dazzlingly varied score pays homage to Merrily We Roll Along, the reverse-narrative musical scored by Brown’s great forbear, and influence, Stephen Sondheim.) At times, he will play the piano while she sings, and vice versa, while George Dyer’s band tears into a score that couples jazz, rock, and klezmer, the wistful giving way to the comic and ending on a crushing note of farewell. (The closing word, “goodbye,” felt all too prescient back in March.)

The material exists to be driven by its cast, and Higginson and his co-star, Molly Lynch (the London cover for Dove Cameron in The Light in the Piazza in what seems a theatrical lifetime ago), seem to have amped up the passion and pain of parts that come with self-evident showstoppers, complete with musical theatre buttons, alongside other songs where numbers merge seamlessly into a propulsive whole. Playing a “shiksa goddess” who can’t keep up with either her husband’s growing prominence, or his sexual appetite, Lynch conveys the pain of being sidelined professionally, yes, but romantically as well, in a semi-autobiographical piece rooted in Brown’s own marital disarray back in the day.

Jamie as written can seem a heel: a self-glorifying cad who refuses to “lose,” he tells us, simply because Cathy “can’t win.” But not long himself out of the Guildhall drama school, where I first saw him in, of all shows, Sondheim’s Merrily, Higginson brings an electrifying stage presence, and serious vocal chops, to this portrait of the show’s composer-creator as a questing young man who is represented in the pages of The New Yorker at a time when a lot of other 20something writers would have been manning the till at Barnes and Noble. (Or, more accurately given this show's landscape, The Strand.)

“I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine,” Jamie repeats at one point as if willing himself towards a psychic space into which no degree of external approbation can deliver him. But this The Last Five Years is more than fine: for the first time in my experience of a much-produced show, the characters’ giddiness and desolation, their rapture and heartache, propelled me tearily into the night.

The Last Five Years runs until 14 November at Southwark Playhouse.

Photo credit: Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch in The Last Five Years at Southwark Playhouse (Photo by Pamela Raith Photography)

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