The Southwark Playhouse production of The Last Five Years was enjoying a sensational run earlier this year when a global pandemic forced it to end its run prematurely and shut up shop. When the venue announced it was able to re-open with safety measure, it was only right that this production returned for an encore. What nobody realised was how different the exact same show could seem due to the changed world.
Jason Robert Brown's masterpiece The Last Five Years has been a popular choice this year. The show features a cast of two who rarely interact with each other which makes it the perfect show in this new social distancing world. During lockdown we enjoyed a new virtual production from Lambert Jackson, a new version of the show in the stunning Minack Theatre in Cornwall, not to mention many people streaming the movie version from 2014 starring Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick. For me, however, nobody does it as well as this production. While it's difficult to get this show wrong, there is something world class and unbeatable about this production from director Jonathan O'Boyle.
If you're not familiar with the story, The Last FIve Years is about a couple, Jamie and Cathy, spanning theie entire relationship from beginning to end. What makes this show so special and unique though is the different narrative. Cathy's story is told from the end of the relationship, ending at the beginning, while Jamie's story is more straightforward from beginning to end. Their stories cross over at their wedding in the middle of the show. Even though you know their relationship is destined to fail from the offset, it doesn't take away how emotionally attached you get to the pair and how devastated you are by the end of the show, when you realise just what went wrong.
The cast is comprised of Oli Higginson as Jamie and Molly Lynch as Cathy, reprising their roles from the first run earlier this year. If they gave a flawless performance during the initial run, the events of the past seven months have brought a whole new level to it. We have all, performers and theatre-goers alike, realised how empty a life without theatre can be and, as such, refuse to take it for granted. That is apparent in both Higginson's and Lynch's performances - they give everything they have to offer, leaving nothing behind. In just ninety short minutes, they have made you fall in love with them, broken your heart and left you emotionally drained. How they manage to do that so convincingly eight times a week is incredible and proves how calling performers "Low skilled" is not accurate whatsoever.
Oli Higginson is so authentic as Jamie, you wouldn't believe he was playing a character. From the earnest beginnings of breaking his mothers heart for a Shiksa Goddess to the complicated and twisted emotions that envelop his relationship with Cathy down to the choice near the end that may stop you liking Jamie as a character but will only leave you loving Oli as an actor even more. Higginson plays the role flawlessly, showing off an incredible level of charisma and a flawless voice, making you believe these songs were written for him. Special mention to his performance of 'The Schmuel Song' which will have you laughing and crying within moments of eachother.
Molly Lynch has the difficult job of going through Cathy's emotional journey backwards. Starting with one of the most iconic songs from the show in the form of 'Still Hurting', Lynch captivates you straight away with more emotion than I have ever heard that song performed before. Cathy's journey includes hurt, anger, betrayal, excitement and a lot of love - but not in the order expected. Molly Lynch delivers an acting masterclass as Cathy and will leave your heart in tatters as you see the optimism and hope for the future on her face at the end of the show as Jamie reaches the end of their doomed relationship.
Molly and Oli also play their own instruments during the show, accompanying on the piano as the other sings. This brings more of a connection to the couple, who arenever on the same page or even the same moment of time. As the pair rarely interact, they often perform staring into nothingness. Jamie talking to an empty chair representing Cathy, while she sits on another chair at the other side of the stage, clearly signpoints how literally and figuratively they are moving in different directions.
The Southwark Playhouse may be a small venue but the use of the simple but effective stage in this production is brilliant, with a revolving piano, utilising every inch of the very tight space they have. This results in the necessary intimacy to give an authentic performance of this show. Some of the props used are brilliant too, from Jamie's dolls house in 'The Schmuel Song' to Cathy talking to her husband on a laptop, with the brilliant touch of a pre-recorded video from Oli Higginson reacting to her 'Summer In Ohio'.
What was always an emotional show has new layers of depth since the pandemic. Social distancing has become the new normal and seeing a couple struggle, partly down to absence from eachother is all too relatable. Cathy regretting choosing to be a performer with the immortal line "Why did I pick this career?" also hits differently, given the current circumstances and advice for performers to retrain.
The detail in this production is exquisite, from the moment they change paths in the middle with the ring exchange signifying Jamie is now heading towards the end of their relationship. The attention to detail reaches a surprising level with a number of Easter eggs left in the show by Jonathan O'Boyle. Usuaully found more in movies than theatre, an easter egg refers to a hidden object or reference, not explicitly stated but there to discover and elicit a reaction when it is found. From Cathy clutching a copy of Backstage magazine with Anna Kendrick (who played the same role in the movie) on the cover, to the bio on Jamie's book referring to show creator Jason Robert Brown and describing The Last Five Years itself. How meta. A small but brilliant touch which shows just how much thought and care has gone into every detail of this production. There are more Easter eggs to be found in the show so if you're planning on visiting, keep your eyes peeled.
In terms of safety measures, Southwark Playhouse have ticked all the boxes. From mandatory face coverings to being escorted to the venue and a one way system, there were no concerns about safety in the venue. Whereas most venues have enforced social distancing by removing seats next to occupied ones, they have applied a different tack. 2 of the 4 rows have been removed to allow a reduced capacity, but of those 2 rows, both are completely full. Seats are crammed together but groups and bubbles are seperated by perspex screens between them so it is still completely safe. While it is strange to sit so close to strangers - something we have not had to do since theatres re-opened, there is a comforting sense of familiarity to it, as strange as it sounds. While the screens may make the seats a tighter squeeze, the show was too fantastic to dwell on any discomfort. And if this is what is necessary to keep this venue open, it is a sacrifice I'm sure everybody would be willing to make.
The show reaches its climax with brilliant symmetry, reprising the opening moments of the show as Jamie and Cathy have completed their journey and switched positions. It's rare for heartbreak to feel so satisfying but The Last Five Years manage it perfectly.
If the Southwark Playhouse production of The Last Five Years was pretty flawless in its initial run, this version takes it to levels I didn't think were even possible. The beauty of this show is in its simplicity. It doesn't need big stunts or set pieces, just a genuine sense of intimacy that reaches into your very soul. As a musical, The Last Five Years is one I love in every iteration I have seen of it. However, none manage to be as incredible as this production. From the staging to the casting, I could not fault this at all. What Jonathan O'Boyle and Southwark Playhouse have created with this production is a work of genius and has become, what I feel, is the definitive version of this show and one that all future productions should use in the hope of reaching its level of brilliance. This really is as close to perfect as it gets and showcases just why theatre is so crucial.
The Last Five Years is running at Southwark Playhouse until November 14th 2020. Tickets are available from https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/ Here's a preview of one one of the songs to whet your appetite: