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FringeReview UK 2021

The Last Five Years

Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment in association with Edward Prophet and People Entertainment Group

Genre: Contemporary, Mainstream Theatre, Musical Theatre, Online Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Southwark Playhouse Large Studio (virtual)


Low Down

Directed  by Jonathan O’Boyle, Musical Direction and orchestrations by George Dyer, Choreography by Sam Spencer-Lee, Set and Costume Design by Lee Newby, keenly lit by Jamie Platt. Adam Fisher’s Sound Design too packs a punch. Casting Director Jane Deitch, Deputy Stage Manager Lara Mattison, Assistant Stage Manager Grace Currie. Till February 14th.


Last March I was lamenting to find on arrival the second of two Southwark productions I was reviewing that day, Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, was suddenly closed for a day or two through cast illness (not covid); though re-opened just before lockdown. Ten months on it’s time to join the chorus.

In the meantime Southwark have worked hard to become 2021’s most productive theatre, filming productions in strictly distanced performances, ready to stream – so far – ten of them including several revivals like the touching Fiver and The Last Five Years. So it’s more than worth visiting their site.

It’s wonderful this October filming can be brought to us however far from the Southwark, originally scheduled to move this year a few yards up to a superb single theatre, not the two it’s had here since 2014.

This musical, directed in a flawless revival by Jonathan O’Boyle from the ingenious film, takes an Ohio couple from opposite ends of their five-year relationship: Molly Lynch’s Catherine Hiatt lamenting the end of their marriage in the hollowed-out melodic refrain in ‘Still Hurting’, Olli Higginson’s Jamie Bernstein at its start contemplating what his family would think of his falling for a ‘Shiksa Goddess’ and stumbling over grosser though ironically more acceptable alternatives.

From the start there’s a touch of objectification, a male list of extremes that just beg to collapse. Just briefly they’ll meet in the middle. Vocally they’re ardent and utterly inside their roles. Lynch’s lyrical soprano soars and can get smoky and rip-roaring but mostly soaring with a piercing top-register. Higginson’s bright preppy tenor has equal projection, plenty of heft and a diminuendo finessing that matches Lynch.

The production boasts musical direction and orchestrations of punch and filigree by George Dyer, slinky choreography by Sam Spencer-Lee, a simple and predominantly blue-themed set and costume design by Lee Newby, neatly whirled on and off as neat props: piles of novels, doll’s house, mandolin, Mac laptop. And much sliding off and on the piano. It’s keenly lit in the Southwark space by Jamie Platt whose lighting slants time in shades, space through haloed palimpsests. Adam Fisher’s sound design too packs a punch with no sense of limit.

Jamie’s second song ‘Things are Moving Too Fast’ sums him up, whilst sympathies are more far readily engaged with Lynch’s heartbroken seemingly wronged Catherine whose show and birthday Jamie seemingly can’t be bothered to stay for, just as she refused to attend his latest launch party. The great novelist – still only twenty-eight – has seemingly moved on, having written The Mermaid which Catherine leafs through in the sixth song in a consolatory sense of exclusion at the launch party: ‘I’m a Part of That’.

Jamie’s short story narrated to Cathy in ‘The Schmuel Song’ has Higginson on excellent expressive form, allowed more soul and less sheer bravura – it’s also a memorable number, edged with East European folk chromaticism: a celesta accompaniment and a Jewish fiddle riff making this utterly memorable, the finest since Catherine’s opening number. There’s a strong percussive element to several songs, counterpointing slow numbers. The promise in the gift of a watch is the point where symbol and song fuse in affirmation. It’s fleeting. Soon it’ll be stop all the clocks.

It’s when they come together at the midpoint in ‘The Next Ten Minutes’ that their stories touch at their confetti’d wedding, ‘I do’ being a glorious duet. Even straight after marriage ‘It’s Fine’ shows Jamie resisting temptation testily when all the women he fancied suddenly make themselves available. Lynch’s next number has a winning touch of that other Bernstein’s ‘A Little Bit in Love’ in ‘When You Come Home to Me’. And the heartbreak begins as Jamie’s excuses become grandiose ‘if Random House comes calling’ (which they probably will) in ‘We’re Fine’, with its repeat refrain of that phrase darkening only two songs from the marriage – but even the previous one suggests it.

‘When You Come Home’ from Catherine before and after with a touch of Irish folk shows her auditioning – we hope she’ll make it one day though without Jamie. This produces a fantastic belt of coloratura from Lynch as at an audition, and a wonderful patter. Brown’s lyrics and the way he uses language to shift off the bars and turns speech loose at the edges is original and tricky.

There’s narrative bleeds too – Jamie calls Catherine with his New Yorker review from John Updike (one of the few dating pointers but this piece is frankly timeless) and Catherine’s too busy with going on to her show, and his editor is young… And we get a reading from Jamie’s Updike-ish novel. Two-thirds through, our sympathy’s cautiously, finally engaged with Jamie. ‘Talk To Me’ underscores Cathy’s withdrawal from Jamie’s world for her own. ‘I will not lose because you can’t win’ Jamie declares near the end of his ‘If I Didn’t Believe in You’ though it’s clear that belief falters. At such climactic moments piano and percussion tend to explode in testosterone.

It’s ingenious because of the way it maps onto the progressively regressing Cathy in such songs of a previous lover and an old friend: ‘I Can Do Better Than That’ but in fact wildly excited about Jamie; ironically counterpointed with Jamie’s increasing distance. Especially when he wakes up wonderingly with a lovely young woman; not Cathy who’s waiting but his editor Elise. And even as Lynch strikes an anvil Jamie sings the valedictory ‘come back to bed kid, let me back inside you/I promise I won’t lie to you’ in ‘Nobody needs to know’. ‘I could be in love with you’ he tells Elsie, as he did Cathy in ‘Shiksa Goddess’.

And we’re at Cathy’s thrilled ‘Kiss me’ and the tonally rising rapture of falling in love in ‘I have been waiting for you’. The raw juxtaposition with five years on is of course heart-breaking and it’s Cathy we fall for. But it seems headed to be symmetrical, with Jamie now who ends it: ‘I’m not the only one who’s hurting here’ as he and Elise pack up Cathy and head to close the joint bank account. Some of the edgy violin and folk-inflections of ‘The Schmuel Song’ returns, the most individual melodic material in this musical.

Wrenchingly though ‘Goodbye Until Tomorrow’ returns to counterpoint Jamie singing ‘goodbye Cathy’ in his valedictory ‘I Could Never Rescue You’. The way the two singers play four-hand piano with touches from violin guitar and celesta is infinitely touching.

There have been musical works alternating male and female perspective on a relationship foundering. Most notably classically in Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony of 1923 based on Tagore settings, four male and three female. Magnificent, it lacks the intimacy and ingeniousness of this musical.

Filming is seamless and intimate, lighting smoking onto other worlds, with Lynch and Higginson so heart-wrenching and pitch-perfect you can’t imagine – and don’t want to imagine – this being done any differently. It’s streaming till February 14th the finest musical in stream-town. Don’t miss this gem.