Review: The Last Five Years (Southwark Playhouse)

The Jason Robert Brown musical returns to London with Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson as the leads

Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch in The Last Five Years
Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch in The Last Five Years
© Pamela Raith

Not many people go into Jason Robert Brown's iconic musical without knowing the concept. But if you're unfamiliar, here it is: Cathy and Jamie tell the story of their five-year relationship through song. But while Jamie's story moves chronologically, Cathy's begins at the end and moves backwards. The pair only meet once in the middle of the piece: at their wedding.

Usually the show is staged with each actor being present alone during their song, alternating each musical number. But Jonathan O'Boyle's production elects to have the pair on stage the entire time, their timelines weaving visually as well as lyrically. From the beginning of the piece, when the you are shown frozen moments of the couple's relationships (rather than beginning with "I'm Still Hurting"), you know you're in for something extraordinary. What's more, the pair also play the piano for the other's songs (accompanied by a brilliant four-piece band), with their bodies twisting around each other as they reach for the keys.

This staging adds so much more to the musical than ordinarily, and O'Boyle's choices enable him to mine Brown's lyrics and come up with gold. A watch is given back at the same time it is gifted, and there's a real irony in Cathy's "why does this pianist hate me?" when her future ex is the one playing the notes.

The heart of the piece, if you will, is the piano. Placed on a revolve – a first for the venue – it is the centre of all the action. Jamie Platt's lighting tells a story of its own, moving from misty blues to the bright orange of a regretful morning. Lee Newby's design is simple yet bold. An LED-studded 'L5Y' is placed on a balcony overlooking the performance space, and Newby's costumes are minimalist perfection, with the pair's base outfit being their wedding clothes. It's these tiny details which help to pack an emotional punch into the show, as you see the small remnants of a sadly doomed relationship. There's also plenty of drinking involved, whether that be a casual sip of wine or Jamie downing a full glass in two moments of heightened emotion. It's a small repeated choice that beautifully exemplifies some early 20s relationships.

Playing the lovers, Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson are completely exceptional. Higginson is full of energy as Jamie, relishing his rock 'n' roll numbers such as "Moving Too Fast" while also delivering the punches when the relationship takes a downward turn, such as his delivery of "maybe I could be in love with someone like you". His performance of "The Schmuel Song" is at first hilarious, exclaiming that he is the clock, before twisting into something a little more potentially worrisome as his true meaning is revealed.

Lynch is, quite simply, a bonafide star. Her comic timing is superb, with "A Summer in Ohio" being one of the highlights of the show, strumming her ukulele as she follows around her revolving laptop, on which we see Jamie in the writer's haven that is Starbucks on FaceTime. Lynch's vocal performance is pitch-perfect, as well as her acting being spot-on as she trawls the acknowledgements of Jamie's book to ensure that she is "A Part of That". Despite Cathy having less of a redemptive arc than Jamie, the audience is clearly on this Cathy's side.

With many more surprises and heart-wrenching moments throughout, you won't have seen a better production of The Last Five Years before. I'd even go as far as to say it is the definitive production. Beg, borrow or steal a ticket.