The Last Five Years Review: Stunning in its simplicity

After two premature closures at the Southwark Playhouse, Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years finally graces the West End – and it has been worth the wait

Starring Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch

Already twenty years old, Jason Robert Brown’s intriguing time-jumping musical has finally reached the West End. Transferring from the Southwark Playhouse after not just one, but two ill-fated productions that were shut down due to separate lockdowns, as well as a live streamed version, the lauded intimacy of the previous version is in no way lost despite the tripling of audience capacity in the Garrick Theatre.

Inspired by his own failed marriage to Theresa O’Neill, The Last Five Years chronicles the relationship between Jamie Wellerstein, a rising novelist, and Cathy Hiatt, a struggling actress over the course of five years. Crucially, however, their stories are told from singular perspectives and contrasting timelines. While Jamie traverses the musical chronologically, Cathy’s story goes backwards from their divorce back to their first meeting.

However, this foreknowledge does in no way hamper or dampen the enjoyment of the journey. Certainly, there is no hope from the audience that the pair may find some last minute compromise. The lack of happy ending is spelt out from the opening bars. For fans of dramatic irony, however, there’s a certain bittersweet nature to seeing Cathy’s numb dismay at the crumbling of her marriage, of Jamie giving up, to flitting to Jamie’s obsessive, optimistic ode “Shiksa Goddess” and, then, in turn, Jamie’s incredible joy at his writing career taking off contrasted with knowing that it’s this rising stardom that causes an irreparable chasm in their relationship, according to Cathy’s defeated “See I’m Smiling”.

The impending sense of doom frames every delight with an ultimate wistful dismay. The audience knows where the journey ends. Every song on the way there is merely paving the road for the inevitable disaster.

Separating the couple in time merely serves to emphasise how deeply incompatible they are. The fact that they both endure the relationship alone highlights their level of self absorption. They exist within their own separate universes, fixated upon their own individual experience. Save for an incredibly brief moment in ”The Next Ten Minutes”, the pair do not interact in a musical about their relationship.

However, there is lots of fun to be had playing with this concept. Introducing the element of musicianship to this production is incredibly inspired. Even though one half of the pair lacks a voice while the other sings, this doesn’t mean that they sit idle. Whether they are observing, or playing the instruments, there’s an awful lot of symbolism to be drawn out here. There’s a conscious decision behind whether they are playing for each other, or for themselves, or choosing not to play at all.

Sometimes it’s because they are driving the action that the other is singing about, or they stop playing because they disagree with the other or, in the case of ”The Schmuel Song”, Cathy is observing within the context of the scene, though then retreats into the shadows to observe as if a spectre, as if looking back on the past of her relationship as ”present” Cathy, while Jamie continues to direct his song towards the now-invisible Cathy, leaning against the piano stool, dutifully and silently watching him.

Even when they sing the closing number together, “Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You”, Cathy, excited and ebullient, rhapsodising about seeing Jamie once more, while he looks back on her, with his knowledge of their full relationship and identifying the flaws that would ultimately drive them apart, their words are in direct contrast even though they overlap. The lighting, Jamie’s, cold and blue, and Cathy’s, sunny and bright, serve to separate them into different universes. The two characters never locking eyes, one looking at the other while the other looks into the distance. When one turns, so does the other. In sync, but never harmoniously. Always diverging away from the other, and not headed towards.

Separated by their timelines also allows for some quiet, profound moments. When Jamie offers Cathy a gift, she, who is experiencing everything backwards, returns her watch into the box. While Jamie gets gifted his wedding ring during “The Next Ten Minutes”, Jamie takes Cathy’s off her. They’re small touches, easily overlooked, but a remarkably cohesive and symbolic creative vision by director Jonathan O’Boyle which enhances what is written.

Lee Newby’s set design is superb. A blank vista, save for a rotating grand piano, a hanging ring of lights and various piano stools, plus large, lit letters indicating L 5 Y, serve to remove Jamie and Cathy’s relationship to a sort of generic limbo. It is divorced from any particular set of circumstance, and made to seem something altogether more profound than just one couple’s relationship. This element of darkness almost helps to remove the boundary between the stage and the audience, allowing a greater sense of intimacy even within a larger space.

Behind all of this wonderful symbolism and this beautiful production is the slightly sour aftertaste of the real life story of The Last Five Years, which does help to realise why the narrative cards are stacked somewhat unfavourably. Basing the events of the musical off his own ill-fated partnership with Theresa O’Neill, Jason Robert Brown was in fact sued by O’Neill for hewing too closely to real events of their relationship. This frames Jamie, the rising star, as Jason Robert Brown himself, and doesn’t paint the bias of the writing particularly favourably towards Cathy, the failing actress. This knowledge somehow instantly makes the musical, which could have been capable of great introspection suddenly feel unfair.

After all, Cathy is introduced to the audience in a far more alienating place than Jamie is. The audience are introduced to Cathy’s heartbreak devoid of context, changing the perception of the character to make her seem hysterical, or vindictive compared to Jamie and his enthusiasm and heart. When Cathy complains about her treatment at the hand of Jamie, it feels as if she is bitter, or only lashing out because she is unable to achieve herself, while Jamie always tries to support Cathy. Even when he’s unfaithful, it’s made to seem as if he really had no choice because lots of women were throwing themselves at him now that he was famous. Again, Cathy’s positive qualities are only really exposed past the halfway point of the musical, once the audience has already seen Jamie’s. When Jamie is ultimately unfaithful to Cathy, it almost seems legitimate, because the audience have already seen the nasty ways that Cathy treats him. It just doesn’t seem to be an equitable split of the audience’s emotions, even though a common tagline for the musical is “There Are Two Sides To Every Love Story”.

Putting that to one side, the success of a show like The Last Five Years lives and dies on the shoulders of the performers themselves. Fortunately, this production is in safe hands with Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch. Both manage to craft nuanced characters despite the difficult narrative, as well as having astounding vocals and oodles of charm. Both of these performers have dazzlingly bright futures ahead of them.

Ultimately, it’s a shame that this is only a short-lived run until 17th October, as it’s genuinely a production that astounds and amazes in its 90-minute runtime.

The Last Five Years is playing at the Garrick Theatre until 17th October 2021.

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