“Oli Higginson as Jamie and Molly Lynch as Cathy are both outstanding: in their interpretation of the characters and musicianship”
On the surface, “The Last Five Years” has a kind of ‘Whovian’ concept at its heart, twisting the perspective of time. Two lovers, Jamie and Cathy, travel through five years of their relationship; he is moving forward while she proceeds in reverse. They meet in the middle, fleetingly, on their wedding day. Beneath the surface, though, is a very human story that deals with, not the time-warp perspectives, but the emotional perspectives of the two characters. It’s a device that gives you insider knowledge from the start (or the end) which simultaneously sheds light on the affair, but also pushes our emotional connection to their story into the shadows.
Director Jonathan O’Boyle has introduced a third character to the narrative: the baby grand piano that takes centre stage, around which Jamie and Cathy circle, powerless against its gravitational pull. Writer-composer Jason Robert Brown might have pulled off a neat trick with the dramatic concept, but O’Boyle’s decision to have the pair accompany one another’s songs on piano is inspired, and adds a much-needed dimension to what are essentially monologues in song. Songs which are nevertheless beautifully crafted by Brown, with a range of styles yet connected with common threads and leitmotifs.
Oli Higginson as Jamie and Molly Lynch as Cathy are both outstanding: in their interpretation of the characters and musicianship; using the piano as an emotional relay, often passing the baton between the bars of a tune. The opening “Still Hurting” shows off Lynch’s soaring and searing vocals in a heart-wrenching moment of resigned pain, while Higginson’s optimistic belt of “Moving Too Fast” encapsulates Jamie’s joyful optimism. Ninety minutes later Higginson beautifully mourns the ending of their story in “Nobody Needs to Know” while Lynch has usurped his dreams for the buoyant “I Can Do Better Than That”. In between, the pitch shifts are perfect as they advance and retreat along their own paths.
Which is the crux. Despite their onstage physical proximity, there is a detachment that leaves us slightly cold, which is entirely caused by the concept of the piece. It is quite easy to forget the characters are occupying different spaces and times, so it often feels that we are merely witnessing a couple who just aren’t suited to each other at all. He’s looking forward, she’s looking back, and their self-centredness strips us of sympathy. It is only when you make a conscious effort to return to the theme that you reconnect.
But the performers consistently manage to sweep this minor distraction away with the vivid brush strokes of their charisma and talent. Backed by the sheer energy of Musical Director, George Dyer, and the five-piece band, the music has us spellbound; even when the emotional magic doesn’t quite strike a chord.
“Tracy-Ann Oberman is superb as Brenda, finding her way through a landscape of emotions in a devastatingly truthful arc”
Do you have to love your child, no matter what they have done? Can you? This is a play about what it means to be a mother, in particular, what it means to be the mother of a son who has done something terrible. Evan Placey has written a masterful and gripping examination of this question, set during the week leading up to the sentencing of Brenda’s son Matthew for the crime of rape. But Matthew is not the only son, he has an eight year old brother, Jason, and Brenda has to deal with his needs, her own distress, and a media siege outside her front door. Tracy-Ann Oberman is superb as Brenda, finding her way through a landscape of emotions in a devastatingly truthful arc, and bringing in delightful and unexpected humour at times. It’s a performance that had my friend and I in tears. We are both mothers of sons, and were both impressed that a young man could write such a complex, real woman with understanding, humanity and a lightness of touch. Because, while this is a play that challenges us to think and question, while it is a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, it is never heavy, never forced.
The action is set in 1998, before social media, so the press and television were absolutely in control of the narrative in any situation. Every time Brenda or Jason leave the house they pounce. This is only shown by off stage sound and lighting, a successful design decision that makes the house seem more and more like a prison as the story progresses. Matthew, played by Scott Folan, is probably not anyone’s idea of a rapist. he is young, gangly and defensive. A normal teenager. Folan never reveals too much, leaving us questioning why this boy man could have done what he did. He is sweet with his young brother Jason, delightfully portrayed by Matt Goldberg, one of two boys who share the role. We get the feeling of a real family, a single mother trying to keep some normality for her younger son, not knowing how to deal with the older one. The boy who has become a stranger, a kind of monster.
Simon Hepworth plays family friend and lawyer Robert Rosenberg, trying to help with the court case and trying to keep Brenda on an even keel. His reliability and patience balancing Neil Sheffield’s unreliable Steve, the long absent father of the boys who shows up late in the play. Anjelica Serra completes the cast, playing Matthew’s girlfriend Jessica, and Tess, the cleaner. None of the cast put a foot wrong and, although it is Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Brenda who is at the centre of the drama, everyone deserves an accolade.
The sound design includes radio broadcasts, and is a valuable evocation of the time beautifully created by Fergus O’Hare. Ali Hunter’s lighting and Lee Newby’s costumes and flexible set create a believable world, a home that’s now both a prison and a refuge from the outside world. The whole thing is drawn together and directed by Max Lindsay with a lovely sense of place and family. It is a triumph.