Imagine if you could see how your relationships would end as soon as you started them. In The Last Five Years, this premise is explored – the audience sees the relationship between Cathy and Jamie develop and disintegrate, out of chronological order. If you were hoping for a spoiler alert, the first song ruins their relationship’s fate… Unfortunately, the cast and crew of Oxford’s production of The Last Five Years couldn’t see coronavirus coming. They’ve switched to a virtual production – which is airing on 9th May 2020 at 7:30pm.

I spoke to the cast and crew. Imogen Albert, a first year Music student at Oriel College, directs. Harvey Dovell makes his debut as a producer; he studies Chemistry at New College – hopefully he’s good at gauging chemistry between actors! Livi van Warmelo, the Music Director, is a Music student at St Anne’s. Cathy is played by Maggie Moriarty, a History student at St Hilda’s. Peter Todd, who plays Jamie, is a chemist at Jesus College – he previously played Mark Cohen in RENT. Other impressive theatrical credits within the group include Livi’s role as the Stroppy Hedgehog in Alice in Wonderland at the age of three!

Originally, the musical was scheduled to be performed as a garden play during the Trinity term. The move to a virtual performance, then, is quite a jump. Livi describes this as a result of “our sheer combined stubbornness” – she and Imogen pitched the concept change to Harvey. Despite his initial scepticism, he was won over by the enthusiasm of cast and crew. One of the many hurdles was how to make the show available. While there are many resources available to aid distribution, none were perfect – in the end, Harvey “ended up making a custom system integrated within the 00Productions website that would allow people to easily access the show while still abiding by all the rights stipulations”.

Rehearsals have been harder than initially anticipated. Lagging video calls, limited spaces and a delay in creative feedback have caused frustration but Livi gives an example: “delays mean that we can never play in sync so then the actors have to work with a piano track, which has in turn preempted and predicted how they’re going to phrase” lines. Maggie shares another perspective; this recording has “in a way led to the music being the driving force behind everything… once you have decided to breathe somewhere and do a slight giggle in the recording- you have to include it when you come to film the scene – almost like the singing Maggie or Peter becomes the director the next day”.

The Last Five Years focuses on the relationship between Cathy and Jamie in non-chronological order. They start at opposite ends of the relationship and work to the beginning or end respectively. For a play that is based so heavily on relationships, it must have been a struggle to reflect this through technology. Maggie says that “one of the most different and most trying things was figuring out how to translate the Cathy I had begun to craft from a stage imagining to a one on screen”. This is a struggle on multiple levels – she has to “figure out how to connect with the audience through the lens, but also a way in which I was able to fully immerse myself into her as character when filming and inhabiting my house, an environment so intrinsically to do with me and my family that made it hard at first compared to how natural it can feel on stage”. Peter agrees and continues that “the largest difference is that the film setup feels so much more intimate – the emotions, the character and the events of the show, while broadly conveyed the same, must be expressed in a way that makes sense on film. It’s been a really exciting challenge to figure out the best way to connect with the audience through the camera”. 

Livi addresses the issue of showing a couple’s relationship when they can’t be together (for some strange reason, Peter and Maggie weren’t willing to commit to leaving their families and finding a suitable location in which to isolate for the show!) – “having been in the same place and interacted exactly once in person, we knew from that photoshoot that we found a really believable partnership. The thing is though, is that Cathy and Jamie’s relationship in the show is socially distant – they share a time/place setting exactly once in the middle of the show, and so it really all hinges on the build-up and emotional pay-off created by the cast”. Reflecting on the photoshoot, Peter says “Maggie and I met, very briefly, before the lockdown was announced – she was extremely lovely”. How fortunate that promotional photos were taken then – otherwise, who knows what zoom-based monstrosities we’d be presented with?! Imogen expands further on the distance between characters, rightfully acknowledging that the camera’s perspective gives us “insight into moments that the characters experience which don’t require them to necessarily have interacted directly, and that is what makes this show work so well under these circumstances”.

There is already a DVD version of The Last Five Years, starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. What makes an Oxford production different under these cricumstances? For Peter, it’s how Cathy and Jamie are portrayed; “I think Maggie’s Cathy is an idealist and a dreamer, but she is also grittier than any other Cathys that I have come across, and I love the way that this impacts their relationship dynamic… I think we’ve done more work to highlight Jamie’s flaws than the film did; our version explores his obsessions, his narcissism and blind-optimism beyond the more cheeky and lovable Jamie that is presented in the film”. Harvey looks at the editing process as an example of difference; “especially as I am also the editor… there is a large scope for creative input and a small thing such as the timing of a cut can give new meaning to a moment”. Livi develops this further, saying that “it was important for me that this show was a sort of form-blend between stage and screen, combining the excitement of a live performance with the changed medium of a film”.  Following up, Imogen concludes that “in this sense it’s more a story of Cathy and a story of Jamie, and they happen to be two paths that cross, rather than a story of Cathy and Jamie together”.

It’s often believed that there are two ‘teams’ within fans of The Last Five Years – supporters of Cathy and fans of Jamie. Our cast and crew have more nuanced opinions. Livi is “musically, absolutely Jamie, he has all the best songs. Morally, you have to stick with Cathy because she gets a really rubbish deal in the long run. In reality, neither”. Imogen continues that “Peter who plays Jamie provides such a real and powerful performance this only adds to it.  However, his disregard for Cathy really is awful and in that sense I can’t ever fully be on his side, while at the same time Cathy is hard to get behind for many reasons, even though Maggie’s performance is equally as powerful”.

Many shows have been cancelled or postponed due to the current situation. Livi has a lot of sympathy: “getting a show cancelled sucks. Genuinely. It’s a really hard thing to have something that you’ve put your heart and soul into (which is mostly the case with theatre-types, we’re a dedicated bunch) be pulled away outside of your control” but focuses on the new availability of shows online as a source of inspiration. Imogen reminds us of the importance of communication, saying that “just talking with people in your situation and who share your passion for theatre can really make a difference and being able to get excited about possibilities that are to come, or watching all the great theatre that is now being released will really help”. Harvey continues that “theatre survives, it always does, and there will be a resurgence of effort into shows when we do come back and I can’t wait to see what people come out with then”. Hope – it seems – endures.