A grand piano slowly revolves on a turntable, its sheen mirrored by a floor slickly coated in black reflective plastic. Jonathan O’Boyle’s production of The Last Five Years is back after its run was interrupted in March, and so is designer Lee Newby’s glossy, minimalist set. God, I’ve missed set designs. 2020’s theatre landscape of livestreams and super-pared down socially-distanced shows has stripped away all but the most basic of scenography, and with it, jobs for stage managers and choreographers and lighting designers, leaving us with a tight writer-director-actor triangle.
Here, the grand piano’s constant slow revolutions are a reflection of the fact that Jason Robert Brown’s cult favourite show is that rare thing, a musical with a non-linear narrative, one that circles and ruminates inside the heads of two former lovers. In O’Boyle’s production, Jamie and Cathy accompany themselves, their focus on the keys heightening the sense that they’re both in their own heightened emotional worlds. Cathy’s storyline begins at the end of the affair, with ‘Still Hurting’, a devastating musical outpouring of break-up pain that’s a strikingly downbeat way to begin a show. “Jamie is probably feeling just fine”, sings performer Molly Lynch. It’s not until the end of the musical that we, the audience, can decide if Jamie is actually emotionally unbruised by their relationship. His songs are in chronological order, meaning that Oli Higginson follows Cathy’s agony with the upbeat crassness of ‘Shiksa Goddess’, which is soaked in his nervous excitement that he’s somehow landed the undifferentiated blessings of an agent and a hot girl; a telling pairing for their future, when ambition and loyalty collide in his brain, as Cathy simmers in resentment.
The Last Five Years feels custom-designed to start heated post-show discussions – and my god I’ve missed that too. It lays a relationship in front of you and seems to ask you to decide who’s in the right, which we did, sitting in a table in Southwark Playhouse’s other playing space (handily repurposed as a bar), chewing over salt and vinegar crisps and who we sided with, about who fucked up, like we’re talking about old friends. It’s hard not to side with Cathy, whose main crime is “not going to literary world parties” (the kind of acidic-wine-and-flattery-based gatherings that seem even less enticing at a pandemic’s distance) in support of Jamie. Jamie’s own sin is an affair that prompts one of the show’s best songs, ‘Nobody Needs to Know’. Jason Robert Brown’s score amplifies its portentous drama with wedding bell-like chimes – in O’Boyle’s staging, Cathy makes these sounds by striking a heavy metal bar, like she’s complicit in the breaking, too.
It’s an image – so fragile and violent at once – that reminds you that relationships are ugly, too morally complicated for easy attribution of blame. Jamie fell in love with literary success and Cathy at the same time – the former kept on puffing him up with hype, but the more passive, homebody Cathy perhaps made too much of her ability to puncture Jamie’s joy, with that sharp I-see-through-you gaze that only long-term partners can have. “I’m obviously such a horrible annoying distraction to him”, she sings, struggling to separate her furious feelings of rejection from his need for space to write.
There’s something so familiar about the trope of male creative genius/ sad, resentful wife, something that feels more 20th century than 21st. What makes it so intriguing here is that although Jason Robert Brown’s inspiration for The Last Five Years was his own failed first marriage, he doesn’t really try to extricate the similarly talented Jamie from blame. And it also feels like he pours a lot of his own passions into Cathy’s character. She understands the world through musical theatre; her audition song, ‘When you come home to me’, is a picture of Show Boat-esque operatic female yearning that suggests her love of musicals has completely unfitted her for 21st century men like Jamie. She makes the best of the indignity of an underwhelming summer in Ohio by turning her experience into a jangling vaudeville song, complete with ukelele. And there’s something so incredibly truthful about her internal monologue at the audition room (“why is the director staring at his crotch…why does this pianist hate me, why”) that Jamie, by comparison, seems a little thin – Cathy half naively, half bitterly proclaims him the ‘saviour of writing’ but he doesn’t have the kind of ironic, complicated distance from the literary world that writers often have. His big moment of literary showmanship is a storytelling song about the tailor Schmuel, a fable of creative fulfilment that’s beautifully illustrated here using a tiny doll’s house, lit up from inside. Still, Jamie overeggs his story by spelling out its moral to Cathy, telling her that “Maybe your heart’s completely swayed, but your head can’t follow through”. He seems to suggest that the problems she faces are less the inequalities of the musical theatre world, and more her own lack of faith, and then he casts himself as almost a god to her, able to gift her with the time (and thus, success) that she hasn’t been able to earn for herself.
At first, she sits and listens – then she quietly moves away as he continues to expound his story-message to her empty chair. It’s one of the beautiful moments of missed connection here – the two performers move on different timelines, like graceful automatons in an ornamental clock, a reminder of how fleeting and illusory genuine communication can be. Critics of The Last Five Years have often argued that there’s something emotionally missing, in the way that they don’t directly interact – but there’s clearly nothing cold or cerebral about a formal experiment that leaves so many of its viewers in tears. The emotional connection is more than supplied by you, the audience member, filling in the gaps with knowledge of what comes before and after, and gluing it all together with your own memories of past heartache.
I felt a bit old watching this, sometimes. They’re both so young; 20-somethings that build their marriage on false ideas they have about themselves and what they’re going to be. In ‘Nobody Needs to Know’, Jamie compares their bond to a treehouse they built together; he glues twigs in place, but like a boisterous 12-year-old, he can’t stop shaking it all off balance. Oli Higginson works so well in this role because he feels like he’s the Jamie of the beginning of the affair, not the end, perpetually overwhelmed at the girls and literary success he’s suddenly won after (what must have been) an awkward adolescence. And Molly Lynch’s voice has the beauty and simplicity that her songs need; when she sings “I’m a Part of That”, you really feel that she’s young and insecure enough that she does, in that moment, feel like hanging onto the coat-tails of someone else’s greatness is enough for her.
Melodies float from these performers’ piano-playing fingers up to the half-invisible four-piece band above; Cathy’s audition song, a melancholy waltz which recurs, full of nostalgia for their first meeting. Like Sondheim’s Company, which could all be a dream unfolding inside Bobby’s head, this musical is a delicately-crafted bubble, full of inward-turning psychological intensity. It invites you to turn inwards, yourself, and revisit relationships you’ve had and preconceptions about yourself that you’ve abandoned – a perfect show for this muted Autumn, where so many dreams are muffled and packed away in layers of plastic wrap, and emotional highs seem situated in the past and maybe the future, but not in the present.
The Last Five Years is on at Southwark Playhouse until 14th November, and is also available in livestream form; more info and tickets here.