Love stories are the bread and butter of most drama; people are born, die, get new jobs, commit crimes or do mundane chores but love is the device used most often to drive character behaviour. Given its prevalence, coming up with more interesting and inventive ways of reimagining the boy meets girl or equivalent scenario and what happens next is crucial for a writer to stand out in a crowded field. We have seen love stories told conventionally from A to B, a concept endlessly repeated, there are some told in reverse of which Harold Pinter’s Betrayal is an especially accomplished example, and plenty of variations thereupon. But Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last Five Years manages to bring something quite new, as the two characters tell their stories in different directions – the female lead from devastation to first encounters, and the male lead in an opposing linear style. The effect is remarkable.
This deceptively simple premise manages to create a substantial emotional impact across the show’s 90-minute run time. Structurally, it is a take on the she said / he said idea that not only moves the couple in contradictory directions but alternates the solos between them first her, then him as they fall in and out of love both backwards and forwards at the same time. Initially, it seems as thought this concept will run out of steam before the end – how many songs about the stages of love can people sing and surely both halves of the show will end up looking the same, her impression of early love will uninterestingly match his – but Brown’s writing is much smarter that that, giving us two people who don’t quite feel the same way about each other at the same time, building a cumulative effect that locks the various jigsaw pieces together.
The Last Five Years is like hearing two sides of the conversation only minutes or hours apart, revealing fragments of interactions, arguments, mutual dreams that when we come to it never quite match up. The unfolding narrative is purposefully not quite balanced, we never see the other side of each specific conversation – Brown could easily have shaped his show that way – instead when the other half of the couple eventually arrives in the same time period later in the show we get a similar but not quite equal impression of their life together, one in which many related conversations were clearly taking place about their levels of happiness, commitment and connection. For example, in the early days she sings about her excitement at being with him, he’s excited about his career prospects. And the audience doesn’t need to hear one whole conversation because the emotional clutter that emerges from these snippets suggests plenty of one-sided interactions happening, adding an inevitability to their eventual parting, as though from happiness to sorrow the two of them never really heard each other at all.
And The Last Five Years is at first most notably about the imbalance in relationships, how one person often cares more, contributes more than the other, one thinking always of “us” the other of “me”. This is a musical that both uses and comments on the primacy of male perspective, how Jamie’s career as a writer, his wants and purpose come to dominate not only the day-to-day business of his relationship with Cathy but also her own thoughts and feelings. Across her perspective it is Jamie that is the focus, songs and frustrations addressed to and caused by him, arguments about his perceived neglect and even audition material for her career as an actress shown for his approval. As the show begins it is her paranoia, her pain that is seemingly the cause of their breakup, only later are we shown how entirely Cathy has molded her life around his.
So Jamie is the bad guy? Initially perhaps as he happily focuses on his budding reputation as a writer, his relationship is a happy subplot for Jamie, something he wants but most of his songs in this early section of the musical are about him as a person. Upbeat, rock-inspired numbers including Shiksa Goddess and Moving Too Fast contrast pointedly with Cathy’s I’m Still Hurting after the marriage is over and See I’m Smiling which follows as she begs for more time to fix their problems. Jamie seems insensitive to anything but his own success. But as Brown’s clever story unfolds that perspective shifts and while there is a cruelty in Jamie’s later behaviour there is also feeling which plagues him as he reaches the breakdown of their marriage.
The Last Five Years is also about the deceptive nature of memory, something we see particularly from Cathy’s perspective that regresses from heartbreak and suspicion to hopeful expectation. The sunny optimism of early love and the endless plans for a lifetime together seem naive, even unlikely in the cold blue light of a relationship breakdown. Brown wants the audience to wonder to what extent this formative period is always a fantasy, something that Cathy looks back on as far easier and more joyous than it was. What were the signs she ignored in an eagerness to be loved, and likewise as Jamie journeys forward how little does he really know or care about the woman he wants to marry, how much of love is false memory and illusion?
Directed by Jonathan O’Boyle whose wonderful version of The View Upstairs played at the Soho Theatre last year, this production of The Last Five Years moves away from the dramatic stagings of earlier approaches and instead takes a more representational approach to imagining this relationship (which happily moves away from the 2015 film as well). Like Ghost Quartet at the Boulevard Theatre this show becomes a musicians’ performance piece, one that keeps the couple on stage at all times to focus on the emotional experience of each character. Designed by Lee Newby, on a small revolving stage dominated by a grand piano and four chairs at the corners of the 3/4 round space, this simplified, stripped-back approach removes the complexity of rapidly changing rooms and New York backdrops, and with only a few props to give context, it creates a far greater and considerably more powerful emotional intimacy, just the characters and their relationship, no distractions.
O’Boyle’s decision to use actor-musicians is also a canny one, underscoring the culpability of both characters for what ensues, they are quite literally making the music of their life together. But hidden behind Newby’s classy black walls a four piece band under the musical directorship of George Dyer add keyboard, violin (Elaine Ambridge), guitar (Ryan Webber) and cello (Andy Crick / Rachel Shakespeare). At first the sound threatens to overwhelm the singing – a problem of over-amplification dogs many modern musicals in small spaces and drowns out the lyrics – but the balance soon settles to wonderfully create Brown’s eclectic and multifaceted score, with the band bringing shade and tone to the different emotional currents and psychological beats within the show.
Playing piano and guitar, Oli Higginson gives an outstandingly physical performance as Jamie, energetically bounding around the stage and even up onto the piano stool as he belts out the early numbers. Higginson’s voice is extraordinary, full of lush variation, power and sensitivity as he charts Jamie’s difficult trajectory through this show. He’s not an easy character to like but his confidence and charm are magnetic, particularly in the comic touches he brings to numbers such as The Schumel Song which act out the story of a Jewish tailor that Jamie is writing and merges into a declaration of support and love. Like Cathy, the audience is seduced by Higginson’s Jamie and lives through the good years and the bad as commercial success as a writer takes him further away from his wife.
As those good years sour, Higginson finds a different resonance in the quieter and more affecting songs in the latter part of the show. The self-assured Jamie starts to fade and is replaced by cruelty as he jibes at Cathy’s lack of success, refusing to lose because she can’t win. But Higginson introduces notes of self-loathing into the performance, creating just enough understanding and empathy for Jamie’s perspective with emotive versions of Nobody Needs to Know and the affecting I Could Never Rescue You. It is a multi-layered and complex performance that is honest about Jamie’s flaws while never forgetting his own interior landscape.
Molly Lynch is every bit as good in the role of Cathy whose reverse journey through her own chronology has a melancholy feel, starting from a pitch of misery as Jamie chooses to end the marriage that Cathy still wants to save in the excellent Still Hurting, and spooling back to the more optimistic girl she once was. Lynch creates a woman who in many ways never knows who she is, we learn little of her own tastes, desires or plans for the future only what she hopes for them as a couple and her absorption in the relationship contributes to its decline. The sadness of her beginning weaves through every moment of those earlier years and Lynch beautifully charts the disappointments and limitations that stymie Cathy’s acting career and leave her clinging to a relationship that doesn’t work and a husband whose faithfulness she is paranoid about.
There is an excellent sequence in the middle as Cathy sings When You Come Home to Me at first to Jamie and then at auditions, a bouncy 40s-esque cabaret song that is increasingly curtailed and becomes downbeat as her plans stall. The carefree younger Cathy in cool dark glasses sipping coke through a straw seems a lifetime away from the world-weary wife she becomes and, like Higginson, Lynch gives such flesh to Cathy that you wonder 90-minutes later how she will ever survived the crushing blow of divorce, and what sense of self will exist for her in the Jamie-free future.
These versions of the characters meet only once at their own wedding in the middle of the show and it is an unusual task for actors to be constantly on stage together and develop chemistry while never being in the same scene or psychological state. That you can envisage them as a couple and understand why their relationship was always destined to fail is testament to the quality of these performances and the audience never doubts that these two people are and were together for five years. The technical skill O’Boyle utilises along with choreographer Sam Spencer-Lane to place the various Jamies and Cathys together but apart is crucial, amplified by the very few moments where their eyes meet or they momentarily inhabit the same space.
Forget the silly film and the dramatically elaborate versions of The Last Five Years you may have seen before because this production at Southwark Playhouse is the real deal. Within seconds of this preview performance ending the entire audience rose spontaneously and enthusiastically to their feet for an enduring and well-deserved ovation. It may be almost 20 years old, but Brown’s story feels timeless and recognisable, and this bold restaging at Southwark Playhouse is a triumph.
The Last Five Years is at Southwark Playhouse until 29 March with tickets from £16 in preview, £27.50 (£22 concessions) thereafter. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.