Thursday 5 March 2020

The Last Five Years - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Music, lyrics and book by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Jonathan O'Boyle

Molly Lynch

In one of the show’s finest versions in recent years, Jonathan O’Boyle’s take on The Last Five Years makes for an evening of simply exquisite musical theatre in what has to be a definitive production of this complex and unusual work.

The narrative is simple but mind bending - Jason Robert Brown, the show’s creator projects a doomed five-year romance from two conflicting timelines. Jamie’s arc follows a natural timeline from first date right up to closing down the couple’s shared bank account. Cathy, by contrast, is introduced to us picking up the pieces of her shattered marriage and from there Brown plays with his audience. Cathy sings her life in reverse, ending on the excruciatingly painful number – to us at least - of her delirious joy following her first date with Jamie.

Oli Higginson

With its complex conceits, the show is not everyone’s cup of tea and indeed has yet to enjoy a run on Broadway. But at the Southwark Playhouse, O’Boyle much like an alchemist, fuses an array of brilliant base elements into a truly splendid show.

A grand piano sits on a revolve as the two performers Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson deliver the piece. The actors not only both play the instrument (and Lynch the ukulele and Higginson the guitar too) but dance upon and around the piano too. The magnificent Yamaha also proves a deceptively common denominator to the audience, cruelly appearing to unite these two out-of-lovers, when in reality there arms are only linked to perform some neatly arranged 4-handed interpretations of Brown’s slickly intuitive melodies.

Lynch’s performing skills have long been held in awe by this website and for a woman whose name sets ridiculously high levels of anticipation even before the curtain goes up, at the Southwark Playhouse she exceeds those expectations by a country mile. Capturing both passion and pathos, Lynch stuns us with her belt in A Summer In Ohio, yet breaks our hearts at both the show’s open and closing moments, as she so convincingly plays a woman who has either either seen, or is destined to see, love crumble and slip through her fingers. Elegant in white, Lynch is every inch the young out-of-towner transformed into a sassy yet vulnerable Manhattanite.

Barely graduated from the Guildhall School Of Music And Drama, Higginson displays a maturity beyond his years in his inhabiting of Jewish Jamie’s crotch-driven persona. As Jamie’s deceit becomes apparent one is left wondering if the man is ever capable of sincere love, with Higginson capturing not only his passion and lies, but also that complex puppy-like charm that endears him to the audience in the show’s early numbers, but which starts to evaporate as soon as the wedding band is around his finger.

The range of musical styles that Brown has included within the 90minute one-act delight are a treat for all. This is not a show bogged down in introspective balladry, but rather a feast of melodies that range from rock and blues through to klezmer and with as much a sprinkling of humour as well as tragedy thrown in too. Complementing the two on-stage pianists, above the proceedings George Dyer, who has also orchestrated this revival, leads his 4 piece band immaculately.

O’Boyle’s direction is ingenious and economic. With both players on stage for almost the entire piece, every glance and nuance is perfectly posed to reflect their realtime non-interaction with each other, save for the show’s centrepiece, The Next Ten Minutes, that sees the pair marry in Central Park.

Lee Newby’s simple striking set is elegant and underplayed – slick and jazzy with a marquee of "L5Y" as a backdrop, but which seems to soften in the productions more melancholy moments. Likewise, Jamie Platt’s lighting plots are equally and as imaginatively, effective.

This take on The Last Five Years is one of the most gorgeously presented pieces of musical theatre to be found in London right now. Actors and creatives at the very top of their game, it is unmissable!

Runs until 28th March
Photo credit: Pamela Raith

Monday 2 March 2020

The Prince Of Egypt - A movie fan's perspective

Stephen Schwartz's musical The Prince of Egypt, a stage show based upon Dreamworks' acclaimed animation opened in London last week to mixed reviews.
The 1998 movie, the studios' first animated feature, had seen its Hans Zimmer score being Oscar nominated with Stephen Schwartz's song When You Believe, going on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Replete with its star-studded vocal cast, The Prince of Egypt movie has formed part of the backdrop of many childrens' formative years, commanding their love and adoration for a strong Bible story, beautifully told.
So what went wrong that has led to such a much-loved movie, being so slated by the critics on its transformation into a West End show?
I invited teenager Emmeline Liddle, a self-confessed fan of the film, to offer her thoughts...

Emmeline Liddle

If I had to choose one word to describe this production it would probably be “unnecessary”.

Unnecessary dialogue, unnecessary songs and unnecessary scenes manage to turn (in my opinion) one of the best animated films of all time into a boring biblical ‘bromance’. So much time is dedicated to the brothers’ relationship that the whole play drags and uncomfortably, feels ever so slightly homoerotic. We don’t need ten extra numbers depicting Moses’ frustration with and yet love for Ramses. In just a few minutes of dialogue the film manages to establish a powerful emotional connection between the two. There would be nothing wrong with this if a love story was what Schwartz had in mind - it might even have made for an interesting and original twist.

What is necessary, however, is a better set. Polystyrene blocks that wobble unsteadily and clip art of the Nile, or a sunset stock image projected onto the background just doesn’t cut it for a West End production. Having slaves portray water to carry the infant’s basket was a nice idea but looked rather clumsy at times, as was sadly often the case throughout the play. Moses almost slipped off his polystyrene seat, a ‘limestone’ block would be nudged out of place by a stray foot - it all felt amateur and cheap.

The costumes were also off. Moses would occasionally enter wearing what looked like a tank top and pajama bottoms, and I’m not sure what they were thinking dressing the Pharaoh as a Napoleonic admiral. An interesting choice, but I’m pretty sure white suits and epaulettes weren’t invented for a few thousand years.

The performance also lacked comedy. There were a few laughs, but only at the jokes which had been directly lifted from the film. In the animation the priests Hotep and Huy were an effective comedy duo, but Schwartz chose to make Hotep (Adam Pearce) the solo villain of the piece. It was also a mistake to excise the song You’re Playing With The Big Boys Now which functioned in the film to combine humour with villainy, whilst still invoking fear and awe. Despite this, Pearce was certainly the best of the male actors, bringing real malice to the stage and a welcome contrast with the overwhelmingly schmaltzy and tiresome discourse.

Overall, however, the women of the production easily outshone the men. Miriam (Alexia Khadime) was both believable and likeable - she sounded as though she meant what she said, not doing a turn at the local pantomime. Christine Allado played Tzipporah with passion, but was let down by a confused script and direction. Isn’t it rather contradictory to sing a song about how she is not an object to be owned or controlled by anyone, whilst performing an overtly sexual dance for the Pharaoh and his sons? In fact, the whole production felt confused, seemingly unable to decide whether aimed at kids, with bright colours, upbeat numbers and cartoonish backgrounds, or adults, with an overly contemplative script.

That said, Schwartz does well to address some hitherto unanswered questions. For example, we have a scene between Moses and Queen Tuya which acknowledges that if your adoptive child returned, destroyed your kingdom and killed your grandson, you’d probably be quite upset! There was probably a song about this, too. I can’t remember. Which is rather the problem. There is so much focus on having the songs be reminiscent of ancient Egypt that the same cadences are used throughout and meld into one another. The only memorable songs were the original ones.

No Power On Earth was an overused, weak new song. When the plagues descend, rather than use the original chorus Let My People Go - which drives home the main point of the story right at the climax - we have the mawkish new number instead, accompanied by cheap CGI fireballs. It has nowhere near the impact, but Schwartz has seemed set on making this song the theme of the entire production.

This brings me to my main gripe with the production. A powerful biblical tale of Hebrew emancipation is overshadowed by a preoccupation with the emotions of and relationship between two brothers. I suppose this brings the story up to date - reflecting our contemporary obsession with personal ‘journeys’. What a waste. If a story about God, betrayal, hope and miracles that has endured for millenia isn’t enough to make an exciting production out of, then I don’t know what is.

Written by Emmeline Liddle