Okay, so there’s a script on stage, and it’s occasionally referred to. That’s still better than not having a show at all. The Last Five Years, as musical theatre aficionados will be well aware, is a two-hander, and this particular production has no understudies. So, when Molly Lynch was, in the words of the producers, “signed off with illness”, they’d brought in Lydia White to play Cathy Wallerstein: I was watching her second performance in front of a paying audience – and, goodness me, she did extremely well indeed, especially given the very short rehearsal time (I believe only a couple of days) she was given.
There’s a nice touch of actor-musicianship throughout, even if it means the stage is dominated by a grand piano in the centre. And the piano isn’t the only instrument the actors accompany their own voices with. This isn’t Once The Musical – there’s a band as well, visible above the stage. I’ve seen, I think, three different productions prior to this one of The Last Five Years, including one in the West End. This is the first I’ve seen with a revolve, perhaps a metaphor for arguments and counter-arguments in an increasingly fractious relationship that go round and round. Or maybe I’m reading far too much into that.
The other thing that musical theatre fans will tell you about this musical is that Jamie Wallerstein’s (Oli Higginson) story is told in forward chronological order, with Cathy’s story in reverse chronological order. In this production neither leaves the stage at all, so the interaction at face value comes across as cold-hearted and unconvincing, until one remembers that they are in a different time from one another, except for a few seconds in ‘The Next Ten Minutes’ (which feels like it goes on for ten minutes, but then quite a few of Jason Robert Brown’s songs, in this musical and in his other works, do). It’s also worth raising the point that having one of them piano playing whilst the other is singing away also rather detracts from the idea of the relationship gradually disintegrating.
A note in the programme asserts that to “truly grasp the show’s ingenious wit and pathos demands that it either be re-visited or at the very least, re-listened to via a cast recording”. I couldn’t agree more: I’ll admit to being the owner of three The Last Five Years recordings, the 2002 and 2013 off-Broadway casts respectively, and the third being the 2014 movie adaptation cast. All have their different takes on the characters. Here, White’s Cathy is rather likeable, leaving Higginson’s Jamie to be somewhat distant, though I hasten to add he is far from an antagonist. His career as a novelist takes flight whilst his wife’s acting career consists of a few blessings but mostly a series of rejections by casting directors. For anyone in the entertainment industry in the audience, it’s very likely to be hashtag relatable.
Both have remarkable singing voices, which go well together when in harmony as well as when each of them tells their own story. There are plenty of props to aid the narrative, but otherwise, visually, each scene is barely indistinguishable from another, and I wonder how someone without prior exposure to this musical would have been able to follow proceedings. Jason Robert Brown’s wordy compositions certainly help, but the staging felt a tad minimalist to me. But perhaps it was necessary to keep the flow of the musical numbers going.
I mean, it’s incredibly needy, with its first world problems. But it’s incredibly engaging too, the characters’ emotions palpable and the standing ovation from the audience at the end well deserved.
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.