Ray Rackham reviews Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years which is now playing at the Garrick Theatre, London.
The Last Five Years
A familiar, and clearly much polished grand piano sit on an elevated revolve, a skilfully lit haze shining and swirling down and around it. It’s unmoving, and upon the piano stool rests a piece of paper. It is a sight many have seen before, at the Southwark Playhouse, where Katy Lipson’s incredible production played twice: immediately before lockdown in a time where social distancing, temperature checks and mask-wearing were alien concepts; and again (halfway through the seemingly unending periods of lockdown) when it seemed our theatregoing lives had changed forever, and we were encased in tiny Perspex bubbles, unable to stand and cheer. Yet, on this West End stage, it seemed a little more distant than it had done in Southwark; as if the fourth wall of the Garrick’s Proscenium had created an impenetrable border between audience and cast; and at least one audience member’s heart sank. And then, when a Manhattan noisescape came to its familiar crescendo, a few couple of hundred lightbulbs illuminated an L, a 5, and a Y. Two familiar faces stood in their towering presence, and a very different evening began. The rest, one might surmise, became a night of legendary theatre.
The Last Five Years tells the story of Jamie and Cathy, two individuals who fall in and out of love over the course of a five-year period. If you don’t know the show’s central conceit, look down to the next paragraph now. Jason Robert Brown’s once unconventional narrative (one character telling the story backwards, the other from the beginning) has never been more clearly realised in Jonathan O’Boyle’s revised staging for the West End. Whereas at Southwark the audience might be forgiving for feeling somewhat awkward spectators, here we feel almost complicit. Jamie and Cathy acknowledge our existence, address pivotal moments to us, and engage in lyrical banter in an absolutely charming, and then devastating way. We see their pain through the whites of their eyes; we feel their joy through a wink or a nod. It’s a brilliant way to ensure we feel connected, in this expertly upscaled production of a small show.
Everything is as it was before, but elevated. The blue lanterns that seemed impressively suffocating at the Southwark now tower above the stage, still rotating and alternating their power (rather like the way in which the show switches between protagonists) in Jamie Platt’s beautiful light design. Lee Newby’s design is sharper, cleaner, and more defined. The placement of four sleek piano stools gives a nod to the show’s previous thrust staging and neatly hides the paraphernalia of props to allow the playing space to become anything it needs to be. The score has received a serious glow up, with Nick Barstow’s additional orchestrations elevating musically and dramatically, with inspired instrumental choices aligning to situation, character and narrative. At points, this new sound almost tore the roof off the Garrick, and cleverly manipulated the Press Night audience into various states of frenzy throughout the night. In a show that requires inventive staging, Sam Spencer Lane’s choreography was so organically brilliant, it’s impossible to see the seam in transition from staging to musical staging (a rare occurrence in or out of the West End). Another master at her craft, able to really spread her wings and fly!
But what of the two whose relationship we come to applaud and mourn? It seems crass to comment that two stars were born, but they truly were. Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson are the Cathy and Jamie of our times. Expertly crafted, honed, and revisited performances from two actors who have extraordinary careers ahead of them (not that they’ve been resting on their laurels since last visiting the Manhattan of L5Y). It was joyous to see their performances where they truly belong, at home on a West End stage, in a hugely impressive production of what can be a difficult show.