Tag Archives: Lee Newby

The Last Five Years-Southwark Playhouse

The Last Five Years - Southwark Playhouse (by Pamela Raith)

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.

The View UpStairs – Soho Theatre

The View UpStairs - Soho Theatre

2019 is officially the year of the musical; after a period of so-so revivals and uninspiring new work, London’s musical theatre scene is thriving again with reinvigorated classics and key investment in new productions that enchant audiences and critics alike. Already this year the West End has seen a celebrated Broadway transfer for Waitress with Katherine McPhee, now onto its second cast, the UK premieres of Come From Away and 9 to 5 (which recently announced a UK tour), alongside big-ticket revivals of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Palladium and a third-coming for the Open Air Theatre’s smart and moving version of Jesus Christ Superstar transferring to the Barbican.

Just over half-way through the year and there’s still plenty more to come – Michael Ball returns to Les Misérables to play Javert in an all-star concert version opening shortly while the much-loved original production gets a facelift and a redesigned theatre space, the anticipated arrival of Dear Evan Hansen strolls into town in the autumn and if you needed any confirmation that musicals are now cool again then Director-of-the-moment Jamie Lloyd swaps Pinter for Andrew Lloyd Webber with a new version of Evita.

The success of Dominic Cooke’s production of Follies at the National, which also returned to the Olivier this year, and Marianne Elliott’s re-gendered Company at the Gielgud which extended well beyond its original run changed everything, and musicals are now far more than lively tunes and hyper-real stories playing to coach-loads of tourists. With an ability to transfer serious social messages about the world we’ve created for ourselves and the expectations we place on the lives of others, done well a single song can be far more emotive than three hours of serious drama, so the arrival of Off-Broadway hit The View UpStairs a few weeks after Pride couldn’t be more timely.

Max Vernon’s musical, making it’s European debut at the Soho Theatre and running for just five weeks, commemorates the 1973 arson attack on a gay bar in New Orleans which was the most significant event of its kind until 2016’s Florida shootings. And while the fire and its consequences hang over the action, Vernon’s focus in on the humanity of the men and women inside at the time, the broken community of customers who found solace in the one place they could be themselves against a backdrop of endless persecution and hate beyond the walls of the UpStairs Bar.

Vernon uses a time-travel structure in which an entitled millennial moving home from New York unknowingly buys the bar to turn into his fashion emporium, only to find himself unexpectedly back in 1973 getting to know the regulars. It sounds unlikely but works fairly seamlessly in practice, allowing Vernon to point to the ease with which we all take for granted any of the rights and freedoms hard won by previous generations, and how little we know or appreciate the suffering and fear of discovery  which the pioneers of democratic and social freedoms had to endure.

It is a theme that has echoed through a number of high-profile productions about the history of the LGBTQ+ experience in recent years. Both Angels in America and The Inheritance commented on the longer-term consequences of the 1980s AIDS epidemic in both devastating and galvanising the gay community, while remarking on how the impact of those losses was remarkably little known among the younger generation. Similarly, the TV show Pose which came to BBC2 earlier this did the same for the ball culture scene charting internal divisions within the Trans African American and Latinx Houses and struggles for recognition. Vernon’s new musical however looks beyond the 1980s, to pre-existing hostility and prejudice which he suggests has never entirely disappeared from American society, drawing clear parallels between the violence of the 1973 attack and the erosion of equality as hard-line politicians dominate modern US government.

Lee Newby’s set largely eschews any suggestion of camp exuberance, this is not an era in which the characters could be out and proud even in their own space. Newby’s work has a lot of lovely detail, fitting nicely into the small Soho Theatre stage to create a slightly worn 70s boozer with a sticky-looking tiled floor, tired furniture and heavy curtains. The only concession to the cabaret entertainments occasionally offered by the bar is a large white grand piano, but this shabbiness suits the underground nature of the story, and there’s something inviting even homely about Newby’s interpretation of The UpStairs Bar that grows in stature as the characters’ attachment to it becomes clearer.

Director Jonathan O’Boyle keeps most of the characters on stage throughout the show, even in the opening and closing scenes where the 1970s cast linger like shadows or ghosts keeping the past alive as Wes agrees to buy the building. It’s a musical with 15 songs and dialogue so things move briskly and O’Boyle moves his performers around the space, sitting at different tables and when not participating in the central discussion there are lots of silent vignettes that add texture to the underlying tensions and alliances within the group that become vital later in the story.

The culture clash between 2019’s Wes and the inhabitants of The UpStairs Bar is Vernon’s key device, and it’s one that earns plenty of laughs as Wes’s modern ideas, shallowness and clear naivety about his cultural ancestry clash against the darker reality of the people hiding their sexuality and living in fear of public shame. Smashing Wes’s phone immediately as a spy device and criticising his gender-neutral clothing style are easy wins for Vernon, but Tyrone Huntley’s Wes is not a character who is easy to like. Obsessed with image, sexting and presenting his life as a success on social media, it makes him hard to root for and Wes takes too much of the focus. Huntley is very funny and sings beautifully, giving heart to the growing connection with hustler Patrick (Andy Mientus) that starts to reform him. The point of the show is to see his growth as he begins to understand the importance of the room he now owns, but he’s still a rather two-dimensional creation that may drive the narrative but is ultimately the least interesting thing about it.

Instead, Vernon has created a cast of fascinating 1970s characters who, though sparingly used, form a convincingly disparate group who genuinely seem to care for each other. Across the one hour and 45-minute running time, the audience is able to spend a little time with each one of them individually, spread-out across the show, while catching snippets of their attitudes and personal circumstances that build a broad but satisfying picture of different personalities clinging together. With eight additional characters there’s little time to flesh them all out as fully as we’d expect, but somehow Vernon has shown us enough of their humanity and their complexity that by the end the individual and collective cost of the arson attack is devastatingly realised.

Buddy is a married man with children living a lie for the sake of convention and playing piano at the bar once a week, a night he lives for. Frustrated by his need to invert himself, John Partridge’s Buddy is full of stunted frustration as the man he is is constantly subdued by the man he needs to be to protect his family from retaliatory actions because of his choices. And Partridge sings beautifully, particularly ‘Some Kind of Paradise’ which opens the show with a blusey feel that runs through the music. There’s a gentle tragedy in Buddy that Partridge brings out to great effect, having to weigh his options all the time, and even in the supportive surroundings of the UpStairs Bar he must stay in control – a key theme of The View UpStairs being the eternal debate between violent and peaceful means to achieve change –  even at the cost of his friendships.

Declan Bennett has a great rock voice which suits the role of the troubled Dale particularly well, a character on the periphery of the group, feeling excluded and pushed to greater extremes as the action unfolds. Bennett plays Dale as a bundle of ready aggression, and filled with subtle tics, unable to stay still and rather pointedly fiddling with a lighter at every opportunity. He never seems quite as volatile or “mad” as the other characters imply but Bennett finds surprising reserves of pathos for Dale in his solo number ‘Better Than Silence’, the sadness of his homelessness and prostitution explaining his behaviour as he feels unseen by the others, a cry for help ignored with disastrous consequences.

The smaller roles are also full of colour including the sweet mother and son duo of Latina seamstress Ines (Victoria Hamilton Barritt) and Drag Queen Freddy (Garry Lee) who’ve struggled on when her husband left, finding greater happiness by embracing the unexpected path life gave them. Impressive work too from Cedric Neal as the more flamboyant Willie, with a dancer’s technique and an incredibly soulful voice, particularly in the charming ‘Theme Song’, and Carly Mercedes Dyer as bar owner Henri, a no-nonsense proprietor who keeps everyone in line but refuses to give much away to her clientele, while Joseph Prouse’s non-practicing pastor Richard argues for peaceable methods while trying to maintain everyone’s faith in themselves.

Vernon’s musical isn’t perfect and like a lot of American imports it sometimes prioritises cheese over the gritter experience of the regulars of the bar and our route into the show via the time-looping Wes feels unnecessary, but there is something life-affirming about The View UpStairs and its faith in the essential value of all people regardless of what they have to do to survive that entirely wins you over. In the context of recent shows, it’s also a useful reminder that the AIDS epidemic was neither the first or only battle the LGBTQ+ community has had to fight, and, whatever your sexuality or gender alignment, established political and social rights are always one election away from retrenchment. So, forget what you think you know about musicals, because in 2019 they have much to contribute to ongoing debates.

The View UpStairs is at the Soho Theatre until 24 August with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog    

Labour of Love – Noel Coward Theatre

Martin Freeman, Tamsin Grieg and James Graham, Labour of Love

More than 90 years since its first ever period in government, the Labour Party has spent the majority of its existence in opposition and riven by immobilising debates about whether it should honour its left-wing roots or move towards a central populist position. Such intricate divisions are not the preserve of Labour of course – The Conservative Party has torn itself to pieces arguing about Europe on many occasions – but within Labour a fascinating clash of fundamental idealism is a constant feature, and one which writer James Graham looks to explore in his insightful new play Labour of Love.

In a reasonably short time, Graham has become one of our leading proponents of political theatre, commenting not just on the Parliamentary system in plays like This House, but also the wider Establishment in his huge 2017 hit Ink about the early days of The Sun, as well as the forthcoming examination of the television media in Quiz. Graham’s work focuses on crucial moments of change and the ripples that these cause decades later. It always starts with an institution holding power in a present-day scenario and attempts to unpick the various strands that brought about this influence, whether it be the ongoing power of tabloid journalism, or in the case of Labour of Love, understanding the anatomy of a major political party whose current resurgence could be about to break a century-old cycle of behaviour.

The play is set in a safe Labour constituency, examining 27 years of party history using a reverse chronology structure in Act One to take MP David Lyons (Martin Freeman) from results night in the 2017 General Election, right back to his very first win in 1990, with pit stops in 2010 and 2003, while Act Two starts in 1990 and takes the audience right back up to date. And while that sounds rather dry, at the play’s heart is the developing relationship between the moderniser Lyons, a protege of the Blair years, and his election agent Jean (Tamsin Greig), wife of the hard-line leftist MP he replaced.

At the start of the play David and Jean have the exasperated affection of years spent sparring with one another, her keeping the show on the road and challenging his abandonment of party tradition, while David has enjoyed the rollercoaster of Westminster while trying to convince his constituents that being electable and being Labour are not mutually exclusive. Why these people have become who they are and the exact status of their combative relationship is slowly revealed as we travel back to their beginning in an attempt to understand what their future will be.

One of the things that distinguishes Graham as a writer is his ability to construct plays that maintain their narrative drive, drawing the audience into the humanity of his characters while still making significant observations about where power lies in our society. But rather than hammering home his message, Graham utilises a light touch approach to the politics, wrapping it in humour and careful character development.

Construction may seem a basic skill for a playwright, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds, and Graham is a master at controlling an unfolding story and creating interlocking scenarios that work together to form a complete picture. Ink used a series of overlapping scenes, music segments and abstract elements to conjure up the world of 60s journalism, while in Labour of Love, Graham has four semi-independent stopping points, each with their own mini-plot and cliff-hanger, resolved in the second half, so by the end these fleeting visits to each decisive moment in Labour’s recent history have also satisfactorily coloured-in the 27 years of Jean and David’s lives as well.

Normally you need only turn on the news to see the kind of comical and ridiculous behaviour from our politicians you would never believe if it was on stage, but Labour of Love mines a long satirical traditional of holding our leading officers to account. It is a political farce with plenty of humour and packed-full of audience-pleasing and sharply observed references to pop culture that litter the three decades in which the play takes place. Some of the high points include a complaint from Jean that northerners always get the rough end of the deal, ‘it’s like Game of Thrones’ she quips, and waiting for a fax machine to reveal if David has betrayed the local party in the leadership election. The carefully chosen music from D:Ream’s ‘Thing Will Only Get Better’ to Britney Spears ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ will  also take you right back in an instant to the four eras created on stage.

Supporting this is Lee Newby’s purposefully drab constituency office set which uses the stage revolve to move between decades. It’s soulless and even in 1990 well worn, grey floor tiles and the same drawer that doesn’t open properly for 30 years. But it’s in the tiny details that the changing period comes to life as fax machines give way to computers with email, boxy televisions with actual Teletext (leading to one audience cry of “bring it back”) become flatscreens, and crucially the image of the then Labour leader changes, framed on the office wall with Jeremy Corbyn looking quite regal in his 2017 photograph – an image clearly chosen with particular care to emphasis his role in debate between left and centre that continues to divide his party while whipping up a popular acclaim.

At the centre of all of this is Tamsin Greig playing Jean Whittaker, replacing Sarah Lancashire at relatively short-notice which led to a week of previews being cut. None of the backstage drama is evident though, and Grieg makes it feel like the part was written especially for her. Old Labour to the core, Jean is both a thorn in David’s side and the person keeping him afloat, never missing an opportunity to score a point. But across the years we see she develops a respect and care for him that becomes surprisingly touching, and under the prickly and deeply sarcastic demeanour, Grieg reveals Jean’s deeper emotions emerging from a lifetime of disappointments and limited opportunities for herself as she serves a succession of argumentative men.

Jean is also passionately devoted to the needs of the community, rather than the demands of the central party, which leads to much of the division with David, giving her a combative shell. But she is also the link between the MP and the grass roots support which she navigates with skill, and Grieg offers a picture of an incredibly smart woman, easily outwitting the smug Londoners, and teaching them the difference between party power and electoral support.

Martin Freeman’s David is actually a genuinely nice man, hugely out of his depth in the safe seat he’s parachuted into. New Labour through and through he’s passionate about making his party electable and frequently campaigns for the compromises needed to win and keep power in Number 10. The pull of local and national politics, is embodied in Freeman’s performance as David struggles to balance the growing loyalty he develops to the people he represents and his greater ambitions for personal authority and a Cabinet role.

As the years go by – or in this case backwards and then forwards again – Freeman shows how the optimism of David’s first election fades over the years, becoming not quite jaded but more aware of the cyclical nature of power and how quickly new initiatives fail, with pointed reference to the closure of a mine that became a data centre which itself became redundant. Freeman’s David is someone trying to do his best in the wrong constituency, torn between an expectant future and the grim reality of brief influence and then obscurity. ‘I’d better brush up on my Paso Doble’ he remarks as the wrong kind of glittery future beckons.

Arguably the supporting characters are little more than sketched, but Rachael Stirling has lots of fun playing David’s snobby London wife Elizabeth, who sneers at his lack of ambition, frequently going head-to-head with Jean and losing. Susan Wokoma and Dickon Tyrrell add texture as grassroots party members who clash with David, but help to create the context against which the two leads exist.

With press night tomorrow, the flow and comic timing – already working well – can only tighten as the run continues. Perhaps it doesn’t quite have the impact of Ink, one of those rare plays that just captures the imagination, the extra magic that separates the 5-star show from the plethora of 4s, but Labour of Love remains a well-constructed and perceptive comedy that explains why political parties so often tear themselves apart. James Graham is fast establishing himself as our leading political playwright, and Labour of Love is full of insight, deep research and with Graham’s distinctive ability to entertainingly interpret post-war history.

Labour of Love is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2 December 2017. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culuralcap1

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