sun 24/10/2021

The Last Five Years, Garrick Theatre review - bittersweet musical treat gets West End upgrade | reviews, news & interviews

The Last Five Years, Garrick Theatre review - bittersweet musical treat gets West End upgrade

The Last Five Years, Garrick Theatre review - bittersweet musical treat gets West End upgrade

Flaws remain, but audiences will lap up the melodies, singing and storyline

Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch in 'The Last Five Years'Images - Helen Maybanks

Much has happened in the five years since your reviewer braved the steep rake at The Other Palace and saw The Last Five Years (not least my now getting its “Nobody needs to know” nod in Hamilton – worth a fistful of Tonys in prestige, I guess) so it’s timely to revisit Jason Robert Brown’s musical.

Jonathan O’Boyle’s 2020 production transfers from Southwark Playhouse to the Garrick Theatre, with some of the show's flaws remaining, but others addressed. The common ground is that a relatively young audience (some not much older than the work itself, now past its teenage years) loved it and that bodes well for the future of the West End facing a critical winter.   

Jamie is an aspiring writer, all ticking New York Jewish energy and hang-ups, and Cathy is an out-of-towner actress, competing for parts with girls with bigger belts and bigger boobs. He makes it in the Big Apple, caught in the whirligig of publishers’ parties and Updike reviews in the New Yorker; she ends up back in Ohio in provincial theatre, her confidence, ever shaky, knocked once too often.

Oli Higginson as Jamie in The Last Five Years, ©Helen Maybanks (3)It wasn’t a groundbreaking set-up in 2001, so it’s even less the case now, but Brown’s tricksy structure still works: Cathy’s six songs tell her tale from the break-up to the hook-up, while Jamie’s songs tell his side of the story the other way, with a couple of duets when they meet in the middle and a bittersweet number to close.

The songs are as strong as ever, losing nothing in comparison with Brown’s work on his iconic show, Parade. He plunders a variety of musical styles, as is needed with only two singers up there for 90 minutes all-through, from Jamie's confession of forbidden love, the jaunty, funny "Shiksa Goddess", to Cathy's bright-eyed, still hopeful, "I Can Do Better Than That". Their narratives meet with "The Next Ten Minutes", as they dedicate their lives to each other, as giddy, foolish lovers do. I particularly enjoyed Jamie showing off his storytelling chops with "The Schmuel Song", a tale about a tailor within a tale.

Oli Higginson (pictured above) was nominated for an Offie for his performance in 2020, and you can see and hear why. He sings beautifully, a West End voice that can ache with disappointment and gleam with ambition. Critically for the role, he has charm to spare, but he’s a schmuck who could be a mensch and he knows it: he’s just too weak to resist the next bauble Manhattan throws at him – and there’s always one more. 

Molly Lynch’s challenge is pretty much insurmountable: herself an Offie nominee, she sings well, but the role of the gentle gentile feels 20th century in its lack of agency, in its definition against Jamie’s burgeoning success. Lynch (pictured below) may not quite have the luxurious range of Higginson, but her part is underwritten to the extent that she can never fully break away from the disappointed, distressed, spurned wife we meet in the very first song; her options to shine are more limited.

Molly Lynch as Cathy in The Last Five Years, ©Helen Maybanks (2)If that’s an update required in the balance of the writing, O’Boyle sets his staging on a revolve on which is placed a grand piano, allowing much needed movement into the scenes, Cathy and Jamie at times literally going past each other as their paths diverge. With Higginson and Lynch sitting down to play when not required to sing, the piano gives them something to do when out of the spotlight, something natural – natural in musical theatre land anyway – and again emphasises their growing differences, each looking at the keyboard rather than at each other, as hearts are poured out in song. How much of what they play makes it all the way to the back of the house may be open to question, but it hardly matters as MD Leo Munby’s band gives full value to the melodies, Andy Crick’s cello a particularly welcome presence lending depth and poignancy to the break-up songs.

If I still have trouble connecting to these people who have 99 problems but the cash ain’t one, audiences certainly don’t, as attested by the long queues for the matinee I attended and both the rapt attention evident in the house as the lovers cleave together and apart and the rapturous reception at the curtain. But who ever lost money on a bittersweet romcom, sung by a winning couple, reprising songs many of those in the stalls will have had on Spotify rotation for the last five years?  

    

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