More than 100 days after all theatres in the West end shut their doors, not knowing when they will reopen, creative minds have been busy finding new ways to bring theatre to audiences. This production of The Last Five Years is one of the first examples of bringing a new production to a paying audience.
If you're not familiar with The Last Five Years, it was created by Jason Robert Brown and opened off Broadway in 2002. A movie version starring Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick was released in 2014, and it was recently completing a limited engagement at the Southwark Playhouse in London.
The show tells the story of the relationship of Jamie and Cathy but not in the conventional way. With Cathy, the story starts at the end of the relationships and works its way backwards until she meets Jamie for the first time at the end. Meanwhile, Jamie's story is more linear - starting at the beginning of their courtship and ending at its demise. When it is played out in theatre, the two only officially interact once, in their wedding at the middle of the show. This makes it a perfect choice for a show to perform while social distancing is the norm.
This production was filmed in isolation with We Will Rock You and Bend It Like Beckham
star Lauren Samuels as Cathy (as well as making her directorial debut) and Aladdin and The Prince of Egypt star Danny Becker as Jamie. It's hard to have charisma with somebody you are never physically with but somehow the pair manage it.
Samuels is a revelation as Cathy, channelling all the emotion and range needed to give the audience the connection they need with the character, especially as they are unable to do this in person. She manages to go from comedy to heartbreak to danger to joy in seconds and her voice never falters for it. Becker is similarly strong in his role as Jamie, more than delivering on standout moments including 'The Schmuel Song' and a real highlight with a brilliant 'Shiksa Goddess'.
The songs are one of the things that make The Last Five Years so special. 'Still Hurting', 'Moving Too Fast' , 'If I Didn't Believe In You' and 'The Next Ten Minutes' are all highlights, while closing number 'Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You'' mabnages to be both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. The unique storytelling narrative is what makes this show so compulsive. I don't know if it would have the same impact if it told the story in a more conventional manner. This way you are invested in the couple from the start but know it's not going to last.
Considering the show was filmed in each of their houses, the production value is better than expected, with outfit changes and even different hairstyles making it easy to highlight the time differences. Samuels directed and edited this production and her passion for the project is clear to see throughout. This is a show that was made with love and sincerity and that is why it works so well. The scene in the middle where they interact and they pass items to eachother is done very well and is extremely satisfying. One highlight comes at the halfway point where Cathy switches to the other side of the screen showing that she is now closer to the beginning of the relationship and Jamie is closer to the end - a small detail but it's things like that which make this production so special.
Ultimately this is one of the better productions of this show. The recent Southwark Playhouse production was an absolute triumph and brought new life and detail to the show. This lockdown version does as much as it can with the limits of not being physically together with a present audience. The fact this gives you such escapism, you forget you're not in a theatre at times is a testament to its power. The emotional punch at certain moments in the show is still present and done to great effect and overall is a much better version of the show than the 2014 movie.
A great show like The Last Five Years can be amazing when it is done right, and through all of their hurdles, this is a great effort. While we may not be present to give them the standing ovation they deserve, I hope everyone behind this production knows we were all doing it in spirit.
You can catch The Last Five Years at 7.30 tonight and tomorrow. Tickets cost £8 and are worth every penny: https://lwtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/the-last-five-years/