Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last 5 Years comes to the West End a year after its sold-out London premiere at the Southwark Playhouse. The show originally premiered at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2001 and has been produced in Northern America and internationally ever since. The musical takes us through five years in the relationship of New Yorkers Jamie and Cathy, an emerging author and actress respectively, and the toll their demanding professions take on their lives as they fall in and out of love.
The action follows a non-linear approach with Jamie’s story told in chronological order, starting at the first encounter between the two, whilst Cathy’s story plays out in reverse chronological order, starting just after their marriage has ended. Their individual timelines play out independently, intersecting in the middle during their wedding, wherein they directly address each other for the first (and only) time. Each successive musical number switches perspectives between Jamie and Cathy, beginning with ‘Still Hurting’ where Cathy mourns the end of her marriage and ‘Shiksha Goddess’ where Jamie recounts his first meeting with her, overjoyed at meeting someone outside his Jewish heritage. This is followed by ‘See I’m Smiling’ wherein Cathy laments the final straws in their long-distance relationship as they work across two different cities, whilst Jamie shares his nervousness and joy about the rapid developments in his personal and professional life in ‘Moving Too Fast’. This shifting perspective carries on till “The Next 10 Minutes” when Jamie proposes to Cathy and they sing together, their timelines overlapping. The second half of the show has Jamie come to terms with the gradual decline of the relationship and the ugly emotions that it brings forth, including an affair he has with another woman, whilst Cathy remembers the initial days of their journey – from their first date to the time she asked him to move in together – and ends on the hopeful “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” wherein she confesses she’s been waiting for someone like Jamie all her life whilst he wistfully says goodbye to her sitting alone in their shared apartment.
With foot-tapping musical performances by its cast and spectacular orchestration led by Leo Munby, this production brings out the beautifully bittersweet nature of Brown’s story which was inspired by his own life. Oli Higginson’s portrayal of Jamie is delightful to watch, balancing the character’s self-driven professional ambition with his emotionally capricious response to Cathy’s insecurities. His comedic timing and energetic presence is spectacular to watch, evoking roaring applause from the audience after every single musical number. Molly Lynch’s Cathy is heart-wrenchingly gripping, bringing out her inner anxieties about a life in show business just as much as her understated fears of ending up being a nobody in a small town somewhere. Her vocal delivery is immaculate, playing the softer (and more nuanced) musical numbers with effortless ease.
Jonathan O’Boyle’s masterful direction breathes fresh life and intrigue to the characters’ individual identities, cleverly using movements and shared glances between the duo to bring out the brewing tension in the relationship. Sam Spencer-Lane’s choreography and Lee Newby’s dynamic design, most notably the deft use of a rotating platform in the centre, allows us to visualize the (emotional) distance between them as they gradually grow apart. Jamie Platt’s light design succeeds in painting a hauntingly vivid visual palette for the story, aiding the swift transitions in tempo and narrative with sharp light changes. In this superior technical production, the biggest stand out is the ensemble of musicians that accompany the on-stage performers. Never missing a beat, they deliver a masterful melody that blends a number of musical genres, including pop, jazz, classical, rock, and more.
To summarize, The Last Five Years is a visual and musical spectacle that celebrates the charm and giddiness of falling in love with a stranger just as much as it mourns the emotional turbulence of falling out of love with one’s soulmate. Brown’s skilful composition and writing feel just as engaging and relevant in this revival as it did twenty years ago, making for a magical night out for audiences in the West End following what was an exceptionally tough year for musicals and the larger commercial live arts industry.
You can watch The Last Five Years at the Garrick Theatre until Sunday 17th October 2021. Learn more and book your tickets at https://www.nimaxtheatres.com/shows/the-last-five-years/
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 24th September 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★