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‘It’s ingeniously beautiful’: THE LAST FIVE YEARS – Southwark Playhouse ★★★★★

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Southwark Playhouse, London – until 14 November 2020

And so to a real press night, an event now as rare as a mystical apparition, a shining sword rising from a dark lake. The gallant Southwark Playhouse offers a miniature musical, Jason Robert Brown’s 90-minute wonder The Last Five Years.

A quick note on how Southwark now works: to get sufficient bodies in – 50% – they have spaced the rows and divided seats with tall plastic transparent screens according to bookings: so that if you are a broad-shouldered loner both arms are a bit pinioned and your masked neighbours safely but disconcertingly seen as if  tropical fish. Unnervingly close and muffled.

It is weird. But it is theatre. The rows look fabulously full despite the immaculate screening (god, they must be wiping perspex for hours). Sound effects of New York sirens set the tone and excitement for this two-hander relating young love and its ending. It’s ingeniously beautiful: the tale first told forward by he exuberant Jewish Jamie (“I’m breaking my mother’s heart… hey, hey, Shiksa Goddess”) but backwards by Kathy, starting with a starkly beautiful, angry opening lament: “Jamie arrived at the end of the line, Jamie’s convinced that the problems are mine.”

These are two souls ambitious both for love and for success: he a burgeoning writer, she a musical theatre hopeful. They are careering rockily towards the moment when the pressures of ambition on the workaday compromises of new marriage blow it all apart.

It’s a blast, a rollercoaster of jazz and blues and ballad and rock and vaudeville and at one point klezmer; the most joyously exuberant, emotionally rackety return imaginable for the valiant London fringe. I loved it.

Molly Lynch is honey-voiced, expressive, touching and enraging both: Oli Higginson, devastatingly handsome, gives us all the boyish bounce and painful longings of being 23 years old, clever, and greedy for life. There’s a wonderful Sondheimish reflection once on how women suddenly come on to newly married men; moments of naïveté and sparks of sad self- knowledge as the pair – who only coincide in time at their wedding mid show – weave round one another and in and off  the revolving grand piano, playing it in turn with the musicians overhead enriching the sound. They are vividly real and young in the lively, mobile direction by Jonathan O’Boyle.

The lyrics are sharp, often funny – Kathy’s audition scene elegantly skewers the cattle-market horrors of the biz, and there is poignant humour in Jamie’s vain attempt to get his sulky, professionally disappointed wife to come to his triumphant book launch. “No-one can give you courage, no-one can thicken your skin”… Why should he fail in order to make her comfortable? Ouch!

It’s a good tale, a young story, a vortex of youthful energy. In our weird Perspex alcoves, forgetting the sweatiness of our masks, we roared and stamped. Happy to be back.  Very.

http://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

rating 5

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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