The Last Five Years review: it's a musical about divorce... where's the dramatic tension?

Oli Higginson as Jamie & Molly Lynch as Cathy in The Last Five Years (Helen Maybanks)

This bijou, breezy, two-handed musical from 2001 sees a young New York couple explore the arc of their relationship from first meeting to divorce. That’s not a spoiler: the twist in writer-composer Jason Robert Brown’s tale is that the woman, Cathy, begins telling the story backwards from the end to the beginning, and the man, Jamie, does contrariwise. They take turns to accompany each other’s bouncy, sardonic, competitive numbers on a revolving grand piano, backed by a five-piece band in the shadows, and only duet – and embrace – in the middle, on their wedding day.

It’s a smart, compact, 90-minute piece, zestily acted and sung by Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson. But the conceptual framing that makes it special is also a limitation. I first saw Jonathan O’Boyle’s production at Southwark Playhouse precisely – bloody hell! – 11 days before Boris Johnson inaugurated the first lockdown in March 2020, and complained then that the show offered two monologues, in which we only see the characters as they see themselves.

Now I’d add that it lacks dramatic tension as well as dialogue, since we learn in the first ten minutes how the story begins and ends. It’s gained scale at the Garrick but lost the intimacy of the in-the-round staging at Southwark. It’s still charming, with a score full of recurring earworm signatures and witty rhymes, slickly staged, with likeable, attractive leads. But your enjoyment of it will still be in direct proportion to your tolerance of artsy Manhattan navel-gazing.

(Helen Maybanks)

Jamie is a Jewish writer, his sights firmly set on literary stardom and a hot “shiksa princess” as reward for his brilliance. Cathy is a gentile wannabe actress waiting tables, who seems to take all her validation from him. The gender stereotyping is balanced out somewhat in the score.

Cathy gets the best numbers, from the opening lament I’m Still Hurting to dizzy accounts of audition humiliations and the challenge of doing Fiddler on the Roof in Ohio with a midget and a former stripper – “going slowly batty/40 miles east of Cincinatti”. Jamie’s arrogance and self-absorption become ever more apparent. But the whole thing feels a lot more queasy when you learn Brown’s ex-wife sued him for basing the story too closely on their marriage. And he counter-sued.

And yet, and yet… it’s an easy, enjoyable watch. Higginson’s rock-star stylings are very funny in the Schmuel Song, where Jamie mansplains his metaphor-laden story about an old Jewish tailor. Lynch has a nice mix of old Hollywood glamour and New York neurosis, and her clear, high voice sometimes recalls Kate Bush, especially when she sends it cantering up the octaves in I Can Do Better Than That. I certainly hope the production has better luck now, given what happened the last time I saw it.

Garrick Theatre, until 17 Oct, thegarricktheatre.co.uk

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