The Last Five Years at Southwark Playhouse
The Last Five Years at the Southwark Playhouse is uniformly inventive and has lost no spark since its initial run was cut short in March when theatres shut. This said, the experience of watching it is akin to waiting in a coffin: while other theatres have removed seats to ensure social distancing, the Playhouse has crammed protective plastic screens between chairs, so one watches the performance from a pod (not unlike the Wetherspoons 500 metres away). Hardly ideal; one feels a cough coming on already.
Health concerns aside, these screens sometimes add to Jason Robert Brown’s palindromic musical two-hander, as the reflection of one of the ill-fated lovebirds seems to project upon the other. Jamie (Oli Higginson) and Cathy (Molly Lynch) have a rocky college-to-marriage-to-divorce-via-showbiz relationship that would be fairly rote were it not for Brown’s ingenious central device: the pair never meet. While Jamie tells their story chronologically, Cathy goes in reverse, the couple trading solos only to meet in the middle. This set up is part Sleepless in Seattle, part Pinter’s Betrayal, and a modern classic of minimalist musical theatre.
Jason Robert Brown has been called a new Sondheim, his literary leanings and verbose lyricisim married with a dose of urban experimentalism. Here, the songs have a folksy knack for storytelling, closer to Randy Newman or Billy Joel. To create the bounce on stage, director Jonathan O’Boyle relies less on visual illustration than the sheer charisma of his actors. Oli Higginson has fun with his easier role, coming out strong with songs like Shiksa Goddess ’that send up his affected New York Jewishness, and creating a rather complex character out of a bunch of easy signifiers. Higginson is large, broad and appealing, and sounds nice even when he chews his words. Molly Lynch as Cathy seems quiet and unsure, until she warms up, hitting grace notes with aplomb in standout number A Summer in Ohio, where she adopts a loose, winking control over the stage, proving her comic chops.
Despite strong performances, cast chemistry and convincing musical numbers, the necessary separation of Higginson and Lynch stops the play from truly igniting and the audience doesn’t feel from the heart. The Last 5 Years has a fervent fan base, but in its current coffin-bound iteration, it is difficult for the audience to appreciate it as much more than an intellectual exercise.
The Last Five Years at Southwark Playhouse is at Southwark Playhouse from 1st October until 14th November 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.