Jason Robert Brown’s award-winning musical charts the last five years of an estranged couple’s relationship, recalling its demise through two lenses. We follow Jamie Wellerstein, a hot-shot young novelist, as he bounds headlong into a relationship with Cathy, a struggling actress from Ohio. She tells their story in reverse – retracing their marital missteps from the moment he packs his bags.
It’s a story told in orbit, as Director Jonathan O’Boyle has Jamie (Bridgeton’s Oli Higginson) and Cathy (Molly Lynch) circle one another on the Vaudeville Theatre’s rotating stage. Unlike previous adaptations based in chic New York apartments, the backdrop precludes any definition of space or time, comprising a single grand piano and the characters ‘L5Y’ in large neon lights. As the emotional merry-go-round whirrs on, props litter the stage’s blank slate – leaving a mess of wedding petals, books and half-finished Frappuccinos.
It’s a tall ask for two actors to hold an audience captivated through a 90-minute setlist of musical monologues, but Higginson and Lynch breathe life into their roles as they career through the bluesy, pop and folk numbers, taking shifts on the piano. Her vocals are extraordinary, and she delivers the sillier lines about liking prosciutto and Wayne the snake with a whimsical charm. He’s charismatic as he is conceited, drawing out the humour in self-aggrandising book readings.
While storytelling from two ends is a novel approach, it’s probably with good reason. We never find the characters mutually enamoured, making it difficult to emotionally invest in them as a couple. Professions of love are consistently dampened by the interruptions of a disillusioned partner five years on, and the bittersweet tone quickly plateaus. While a young Cathy is convincingly besotted, Jamie is curious choice as the chronological narrator, his interest in his future wife appearing to derive mostly from the prospect of disappointing his parents on Shabbat. The pair only reach equilibrium at one touchpoint where their timelines cross – a poignant wedding scene that comes too late in the piece to salvage any chemistry.
The play’s close on Cathy’s giddy infatuation feels especially pitiful after listening to her husband harp on about his internal turmoil whenever a “pair of breasts” gives him attention. As the more sympathetic character, she’s frustratingly feeble. “I tend to follow in his stride instead of side by side”, Cathy tells us in “I’m a part of that”, a desperate assertion of her continued role in Jamie’s life. He appears to be her sole source of validation, and, despite his conspicuous infidelity, she’s left bereft by his departure. The well-worn tropes make for doubly uncomfortable viewing in light of the lawsuit raised by the author’s ex-partner for mirroring their own marriage to closely.
I’m not convinced we’re ever supposed to root for Mr and Mrs Wellerstein as a couple – so dependent are their affections on personal ego. At least, that was my impression, though loud sobbing from the neighbouring row might have indicated otherwise. The Last Five Years paints a dim picture of married life – struggling to carry the weight of personal tragedy it aspires to. Nevertheless, it’s a stunning musical feat carried by the band and two sublime vocalists. And too damn catchy…
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The Last Five Years is booking until 17 October 2021.
All imagery courtesy of Helen Maybanks.
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