“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.
“There’s a lot to like in the gentleness of Steiner’s script, but it’s a slow burn that’s really too slow”
In a time of political chaos, social turmoil, and environmental catastrophe, it’s easy to feel like the end of the world is right around the corner. It’s no surprise apocalypse stories feel particularly relevant right now.
Sam Steiner’s play, directed by James Grieve, is set in a future, disintegrating Britain. People are more-or-less keeping calm and carrying on despite toxic air, power outages, bridges collapsing, and buildings crumbling. The disaster is never specified – we don’t know whether this is the aftermath of WWIII, the effects of unchecked climate change, or both – but we do know trees are falling and the sea has turned viscous.
Four volunteers meet in a dilapidated call centre one night a week to run an emotional support helpline. Their job is to provide reassurance, although they’re barely holding it together themselves. On top of the world falling apart, Frances (Jenni Maitland) is heavily pregnant at a time when pregnancy is considered misguided or radically optimistic. Jon (Andy Rush) is going through a rough patch in his marriage. Angie (Lydia Larson) makes the best of her difficult upbringing. Joey (Andrew Finnigan), seventeen years old, is facing what feels like a pointless question of applying for university.
It may sound bleak, but Steiner handles the dark subject matter with a refreshingly light touch. While the apocalypse rages outside, the Brightline volunteers do their best to simply get on with the day. They hang up their gas masks when they arrive, attempt to make coffee without a working kettle, deal with perverts on the phones, and reluctantly participate in Frances’ positivity exercises.
The play is a series of small moments. Steiner gives us little window-like scenes through which we see the characters try to make connections with the people on the phones and each other, conversations hinting at personal lives and troubles beyond the office walls. There’s a lot to like in the gentleness of Steiner’s script, but it’s a slow burn that’s really too slow. Without much in the way of story, the two-hour runtime feels very long. Steiner’s scenes may be delicate and perceptive, but they lack momentum. And while the characters are strong, and well-performed by a talented cast, the show needs the backbone of a plot to help support its length.
Amy Jane Cook’s astute design presents the call centre as a little haven from the desolation outside, held together purely by blind optimism and denial. Everywhere signs of deterioration are refusing to be acknowledged. Gaping holes in the walls are covered up by motivational posters. Frances stubbornly tacks them back up each time they fall down. A whiteboard enthusiastically displays the word of the week (‘Communication’ ‘Optimism’). Intense storm winds blowing snow-like debris occasionally blast open the door. When the call centre floods, the stage fills with water. But when Frances fills the space with candles, the scene conveys a powerful sense of hope. The message of perseverance, resilience, and hope, no matter how irrational, will undoubtedly resonate with anyone feeling overwhelmed by the world today.
You Stupid Darkness! is a show full of heart and humour about the end of the world. A distinctive, insightful script with something to say – it’s a shame it’s missing a trick.