‘The Last Five Years’ Review: Smart Revival in London Theater Cleverly Redesigned for Social Distance

Adding a baby grand piano to a musical is not, on the face of it, a revolutionary act. But director Jonathan O’Boyle isn’t just enhancing the sound for his production of Jason Robert Brown’s popular two-hander “The Last Five Years.” The piano is not only the focal point of Lee Newby’s stripped-back, black-and-white design, it’s the production’s raison d’être, with Oli Higginson (as novelist Jamie) and Molly Lynch (as aspiring actress Cathy) accompanying one another throughout. When Cathy sings “But look what he can do / And I’m a part of that” — it is, to an unusual degree, demonstrably true.

Ever since John Doyle’s actor-musician production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” became a West End and Broadway sensation (complete with Patti LuPone on tuba), producers have rushed to slash production budgets by having actors play instruments, thus avoiding the costs of hiring a band. Results have been extremely mixed, especially when actors are restricted from interacting due to the instruments.

O’Boyle’s approach, however, deftly avoids all that, scoring strongly because neither performer is restricted by sitting at the piano: For the most part, they accompany each other rather than themselves. Singing their numbers, they can move and act freely, eyeballing and holding the (sell-out) audience in thrall in Southwark Playhouse’s newly COVID-safe larger auditorium.

Health security is clearly uppermost. As with Nicholas Hytner’s season of monologues at The Bridge, one of the first London seasons to open during the COVID era, full instructions on audience etiquette — staggered arrival time, mask-wearing throughout, pre-ordering of drinks, etc. — are sent in advance with paperless tickets.

In this, the larger of Off-West End venue Southwark Playhouse’s two theaters, seating capacity has been cut from 240 to 110. Audiences on three sides are seated in just two rows, the back row safely distanced from the front. Better yet, approximately six-foot-tall perspex screens have been erected between individual seats or between pre-booked groups of people isolating together.

This results in a welcome feeling of control that, judging by the enthusiastic response, keeps audiences relaxed and connected to a production firing on all cylinders.

Much of the power derives from the excellent four-piece band — cello, violin, guitar and keyboards — seated above the action playing musical director George Dyer’s first-rate orchestrations, which have both the richness and drive of larger ensembles. Their coloring does a great deal more than merely back up the central piano.

Of the two actors, Lynch is the stronger pianist, a fact that helps considerably in strengthening the more underwritten of the roles. The ardor of both her playing and her crisply funny, increasingly fresh performance as a whole help re-balance a piece often criticized for tipping too much in favor of the self-obsessed man.

Much of Jamie’s character as an emergent novelist consists of degrees of naivety, which makes his initial scenes cumulatively wearing. But the darker and more conflicted his material grows, the more impact Higginson makes as his neuroticism and denial come to the fore.

The production takes every opportunity to use music to flesh out the drama. In the penultimate sequence in which Jamie, downstage, rhapsodizes about his extra-marital affair, O’Boyle has Lynch at the back of set. As the music arrives at an imposing chord, Lynch lifts a mallet and powerfully strikes a tubular bell. It’s as arresting an image of the two of them as characters as it is musically effective.

“The Last Five Years” will always be more of an ambitious song cycle than a fully-fledged musical, but this smart production with its suitably young cast, filmed live and available for global streaming at £15 ($19) per device at various times between Nov. 26-29, makes the best case for it.

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