'The Last Five Years'

“The Last Five Years”: a lockdown performance

A bittersweet highlight of the Covid-19 lockdown, this specially filmed version of a show via The Other Palace theatre is wonderful – even if it made me rue the chance of seeing Jason Robert Brown’s masterpiece live more than ever.

Taking the roles of lovers Cathy and Jamie, Lauren Samuels and Danny Becker have singing voices to die for. They can both belt out a number with fantastic power – and make a song intriguing, dramatic, funny and moving all at the same time. Yet, of course, the sound quality doesn’t touch a live performance. At the back of your mind is how much you’d love to hear Samuels and Becker on a stage.

Brown’s influential musical, with a justly deserved following, is full of fantastic songs and lyrics that blend the joy and poignancy of romance magnificently. The brilliant narrative structure – Jamie starts by falling in love, while Cathy tells her story backwards, beginning with a lament to their failed marriage – is superficially suited to a show produced in isolation as only one scene calls for both performers to be together.

Samuels also directs and, without doubt, has plenty of problem-solving ideas. If I wasn’t too keen on some of the touches (text messages on screen or scenes inserted in boxes), the variety of rooms and costumes impresses. Best of all, Samuels makes sure neither she nor Becker are always looking straight to camera, so the show doesn’t feel like a long monologue.

Lauren Samuels in 'The Last Five Years'
Lauren Samuels

Samuels’ more important skills, as director, are understanding both characters to get the audience emotionally involved and appreciating the impact of the piece’s structure. Because we see her pain first, we have more sympathy for Cathy. And Jamie is less appealing (I’m thinking A Miracle Would Happen). This is balanced by Samuels showing us a fragile and demanding Cathy. Meanwhile, Becker’s appealing performance balances his character’s self-obsession; The Schmuel Song (which I’ve never bothered about before) is a revelation that brought tears to my eyes.

Danny Becker in 'The Last Five Years'
Danny Becker sings The Schmuel Song

Though impeccably executed with sublime singing, the piece has unavoidable restrictions. While the physical separation of the performers reflects the many ways that distance is referenced in the piece, the charge that comes from having them share a stage can’t help but be a loss. And what do I miss most of all? Applause… without doubt. In a theatre, I would be on my feet for Samuels and Becker as soon as the show ended.

Until 27 June 2020