The Last Five Years is an acquired taste and ambrosia to some
“You don’t have to put the seat down/ You don’t have to watch the news
You don’t have to learn to tango/ You don’t have to eat prosciutto
You don’t have to change a thing. Just stay with me”
There are some musicals which grab you from the off and some that are a slower burn. In 2007 when I first saw Jason Robert Brown’s Parade I loved it from the very first note and as much again in 2011 when I saw Parade at Southwark Playhouse in its Tooley Street premises, directed by Thom Southerland. Writing in the programme for The Last Five Years, Jonathan Baz says, “To truly grasp the show’s ingenious wit and pathos demands that it either be re-visited or at the very least, re-listened to via a cast recording.” This was my first visit to this musical.
The Last Five Years, now at Southwark Playhouse in Newington Causeway, not only has a slower burn but it has a growing following where people have come to appreciate the deeply perceptive lyrics. This musical charts a marriage from two different standpoints and using two different timelines, one from the end, Cathy (Molly Lynch)’s tale starts with sadness in the song “Still Hurting” but Jamie (Oli Higginson) recalls from the beginning, the initial attraction of a girl who isn’t Jewish. “Shiksa Goddess” is an act of rebellion against his family and thousands of years of Jewish history, with witty lyrics.
I found I warmed more to Jamie’s personality than Cathy’s. He is a writer waiting to get published and Cathy shows little or no interest in what he is passionate about. Cathy is a wannabe actor struggling in a difficult profession with noticeably low self esteem. The “Audition Sequence” lyrics are a stream of insecurities she feels professionally like a song from A Chorus Line.
Jamie is too pre-occupied to pay attention to her and she complains about his party going, womanising, and his not being around on her birthday is a game changer. Yet perversely whilst Jamie’s instinct is to cut and run, Cathy hangs on trying to repair and mend this broken marriage but often just one person can’t hold things together.
Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch both play the piano, often intertwining although it is only in the marriage scene that their timelines coincide and they sing together “The Next Ten Minutes”. Both can sing exceptionally well, belting out these lyrics with strong emotions. He also plays the guitar and she the ukulele. I found some of the tunes difficult to hear the melody and therefore inaccessible. The band are on the upper lever behind a lit up sign that says “L5Y” and led by George Dyer who conducts with real verve.
There are changes of pace and rhythm in the songs. “Moving Too Fast” sees Jamie in full rock mode as he touches on literary success. Red lighting comes with the upbeat song. He then tells “The Story of Schmuel, Tailor of Klimovich” about a tailor having the courage to follow his dreams, illustrated by a doll’s house decked out as a tailor’s shop. The message is for Cathy to follow her stage ambitions. “Nobody Needs to Know” is about Jamie’s affairs.
The Last Five Years has the poignancy of decline in the relationship but with Jamie being truer to himself than Cathy’s messages to herself to try harder to please him. I do hope the real woman found a more meaningful life. Perhaps she should try Tinder! Jason Robert Brown has claimed that he was not writing about his first marriage to Irish Catholic Theresa O’Neill but, in life imitating art, she took him to court saying he has broken the non-disclosure agreement on their divorce and he counterclaimed that she was intruding on his artistic expression.
The Southwark Playhouse has an almost design feel to it with acrylic screens dividing each party in the audience, a one way system straight into the auditorium from the street and out again. Masks were worn throughout the performance by the audience. Hopefully other larger theatres will look at how to socially distance their patrons.
See I’m Smiling
Moving Too Fast
I’m A Part Of That
The Schmuel Song
A Summer In Ohio
The Next Ten Minutes
A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home To Me
Climbing Uphill/Audition Sequence
If I Didn’t Believe In You
I Can Do Better Than That
Nobody Needs To Know
Goodbye Until Tomorrow/I Could Never Rescue You
The Last Five Years
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Jonathan O’Boyle
Director: Jonathan O’Boyle
Choreographer: Sam Spencer-Lane
Set and Costume Designer: Lee Newby
Musical Director and Orchestrator: George Dyer
Lighting Designer: Jamie Platt
Sound Designer: Adam Fisher
Running Time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Booking: to 14th November 2020
London SE1 6BD
Rail/Tube: Elephant and Castle
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Southwark Playhouse on 5th October 2020