The Last Five Years reopens at the Garrick: Star Molly Lynch and director Jonathan O’Boyle tell all
After an acclaimed run at Southwark Playhouse and a successful worldwide stream last year, Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson step back into their roles as Cathy and Jamie in the 2001 cult classic musical The Last Five Years, this time at the Garrick Theatre. Cathy, a struggling actress, and Jamie, a literary prodigy meet, fall in love and fall out of love over the course of five years – but this unconventional musical tells their love story in a unique way. Cathy’s story starts in reverse, while James’s is told chronologically, with the pair only performing together once on stage. The Upcoming caught up with returning director Jonathan O’Boyle and Molly to find out more.
How would you describe The Last Five Years?
Jonathan O’Boyle: The Last Five Years is an American musical written and composed by the Tony award-winning Jason Robert Brown. It is a contemporary song-cycle about two people who fall in and out of love. Cathy and Jamie meet and have a whirlwind romance. Over five years they fall madly in love, get married and then separate. The show charts their journey.
Cathy tells her story from the end, where she has just received her “goodbye” letter from Jamie. We watch her story go from utter devastation at the end of the relationship to the joy of their first date five years earlier. Jamie tells his story from the start, where we see him after their first date. We follow his story from the moment he falls deeply in love with Cathy, through the turbulence of the relationship, to the inevitable moment when he writes his goodbye letter five years later.
What’s different about this performance of The Last Five Years compared with last year’s?
JB: The main difference is the new theatre we’re playing in. The Garrick Theatre is a beautiful Victorian proscenium arch theatre, so this brings with it it’s own unique set of challenges. At Southwark Playhouse we played to three sides, so for the West End we are re-staging the production for an end-on audience. The revolve, the actor-musicianship and the piano elements in the show remain the same. We’ve added a percussionist to the band (the first time for any theatrical version of The Last Five Years, which is very exciting!), and Lee Newby’s gorgeous design is bigger and better than ever.
Molly Lynch: There will be some new elements that we didn’t have at Southwark, but I will leave that as a surprise. Some of it is still a surprise for me!. I think this huge collective trauma we’ve all lived through (dramatic but true!) will feed into everything we do as well. I hope our performances will have grown, but I know audiences will have gone through something, too, so I think no matter what it will be a different and new experience.
How would you describe your character? Do you identify with her?
ML: My character is a struggling actress, so I definitely relate! There’s one part in the show where she calls her dad because she’s doing so many auditions and getting nothing, and let’s just say that is an easy scene for me to play! I think she’s a bit goofy and awkward and stubborn but, to be honest, I’ve put so much of myself into her that I’m not really sure if that’s the way she’s written or if I have just made her that way. I tend to make every character I play goofy and stubborn by default – it just comes so naturally.
What do you like about The Last Five Years, and why do you think now is the right time to bring it back to the stage?
JB: The form and structure of the show has become iconic, along with Jason Robert Brown’s beautiful score. I love how it’s not naturalistic and we see different versions or accounts of the relationship, depending on which person is telling it. It shows us that relationships are complex and knotty; nothing is simple or one-sided. There are many versions of ourselves that we portray to our partners and The Last Five Years captures that beautifully. After the year-and-half we’ve all had, I can’t think of a better time to be going to the theatre and escaping the world. The Last Five Years looks at what we all crave: to be loved by someone and to share our life with someone – simply having a connection with another human being. This is the perfect time to come and see this show.
The Last Five Years was first performed over 20 years ago. Has the world the show is set in been updated for this production at all?
JB: There have been some slight adjustments, yes. Certain references have been updated for a 2021 audience. We use iPhones and computers in the show, and we have very much set it in the present, for today’s audience. The major themes of the show, such as love, loss, belonging and connection, are all pertinent to today, particularly as we recover from the pandemic.
ML: It’s definitely not set 20 years ago and I think Jonathan has made it very contemporary. I also think he’s not signposted time in any major way, so it’s slightly ambiguous. The audience could make different decisions about when it is set, even though we have our timeline in our heads. Lee Newby’s design is also very modern and clever and, even though a lot of the show originally took place in an apartment, our set reflects a performance space combined with a psychologist’s room – in my head anyway! That’s another thing the audience can make their mind up about, which I think is really cool.
What kind of costumes and stage design can audiences expect?
JB: Lee Newby, who is our set and costume designer, has designed a striking set. The costumes are simple, yet beautifully elegant and chic. Our main idea was to have the actors wear one costume throughout the show (as they never leave the stage). This then led us to the idea that, as their wedding is the midpoint of the show, we should have them in what could plausibly be their wedding outfit throughout. The wedding outfit then deconstructs during the show. As the show revolves around the wedding, this felt like the most organic idea for our production.
ML: The design is epic, and a really fresh take on this particular piece. What I love about it is, even though the story itself is very domestic and intimate, Lee has created an abstract, epic set that pulls Cathy and Jamie out of their domesticity and into a metaphorical/physical spotlight, where they have to examine themselves and each other. The piano forms the centre of the play and is where Cathy and Jamie get to channel a lot of their love or rage or sadness.
What do you hope people take away from this show? Is there a message behind the story?
JB: I hope that people feel uplifted by The Last Five Years. There are many messages in the show, and I think that is the beauty of it. You put your life on stage with the actors; you see what resonates with you and what your own individual circumstance is. You see what you want to see. If I were to choose one message that shines out for me, it would be that relationships are complicated and they need to be a partnership.
ML: The thing I loved about performing the show in Southwark was watching the couples grab each other’s hands at certain parts – it was so sweet. But then so many people also spoke about tearing up because it reminded of someone they miss or someone they loved. Relationships are so complicated, and the show really speaks to how much comes into play when it comes to whether something works out or falls apart: personalities, career, religion, timing – it all has to line up. Sometimes it does and sometimes is doesn’t, and watching the intricacies of that, I think, inevitably reminds people of the relationships they’ve had in their life. I like to think you can leave the show with an acceptance that so many of those things are out of our control, and it is just the most beautiful thing when it’s right, and we have to let it go when it isn’t.
How would you describe the music in this show?
JB: The music of the show, composed by Jason Robert Brown, has become legendary within musical theatre. It’s a contemporary song-cycle musical. Most people will know or have at least heard some of the songs. Jason has written a really eclectic score using influences from jazz, classical, pop, latin, folk, klezmer and much more. There is something for everyone in there. Each style sets each song alight; it matches each character and each character’s mood perfectly. The style of music used also complements the tone of each song, which reflects the character’s mood at any given moment.
We have a brilliant five-piece band, led by our musical director Leo Munby. Plus our actors, Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson, play the onstage grand piano throughout the show, accompanying each other and adding a further dynamic to the structure and narrative of the show.
How did you stay in touch and keep the show fresh during lockdown?
JB: There were obvious challenges that most productions have had to deal with, such as PPE and social distancing in the rehearsal room. But we were very lucky that the onstage cast consists of only two people, so it was fairly straightforward.
ML: I think we did what the rest of the world did: a few Zoom pub quizzes and then swore off Zoom pub quizzes forever! This team really did keep me going during the worst of the pandemic though. We had regular chats and they were one of the first groups of people I hung out with as soon as we could (Lee Newby is an amazing cook!). I think we’ve all realised the importance of friendship this past year, and I was really lucky that before the world fell apart I met this team and made some incredible friends.
What’s next for you guys?
JB: After we open The Last Five Years I’m directing a new revival of the musical Top Hat, based on the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film. The production opens at the Mill at Sonning in October and runs until January 2022. I’m also directing a major revival of a classic musical later next year in the West End, which is very exciting and will be announced in the autumn. Alongside that, from November I will take up a post at ArtsEd as director of the School of Musical Theatre, which I am really looking forward to.
ML: To be honest, I have no idea! And everything is so fragile at the moment that anything that might possibly be happening – you are almost afraid to say it out loud in case it doesn’t. It even feels crazy talking about doing this show at the Garrick! Did I really just stay in my living room for six months teaching kids singing with a three-second time delay over Zoom, and now we are going to the West End?! Life, eh?
Gallery photos: Pamela Raith
The Last Five Years is on at the Garrick Theatre from 17th September until 17th October 2021. For further information or to book tickets visit here.