BWW Review: THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, Southwark Playhouse
F. Scott Fitzgerald was 26 years old when his short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was first published in Collier's Magazine. It tells the tale of Benjamin, a man born in unusual circumstances. Instead of growing old, he becomes younger, trapped into a body he doesn't recognise as his own and forced to experience his life backwards.
Fitzgerald takes the notion of time and flips it upside-down, exploring the cyclical essence of human existence and the cruelty stemming from its inesorability. After a film that broke box offices all around the world back in 2008 (directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett), Cornish company Jethro Compton Production relocates the beloved story to their own homeland and turn it into a musical.
With a book by Compton (who also directs), music by Darren Clark, and lyrics by both The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an enchanting piece of theatre. They assemble a cast of multi-talented instrumentalists to deliver the plot with a convivial and strikingly atmospheric score. They accompany the displacement of the action to the southwestern peak of England with songs deeply rooted into folk tradition, with influences spanning Bellowhead, Mumford and Sons, and The Lumineers.
Touching and properly heartbreaking ballads alternate energetic and catchy pieces that possess strong narrative lines, which are then turned into a flurry imbued with grace and cohesion by Chi-San Howard's beguiling movement direction. Compton and Clark are unafraid to reach deep inside the characters but never overburden the audience for the sake of dramatic instance. They sprinkle irony, humour, and subtle comedy throughout the hardships they portryal, turning what could have been a gigantic flop into a real gem of a show.
Their strength lies in the storytelling nature they gave to their creation. The company addresses the crowd unpretentiously, transporting them to a world where linear time acts like the villain in Benjamin's lifetime and becomes a threat to everything he's been able to build. The actors take on multiple roles throughout but James Marlowe is a steady principal, with Philippa Hogg embodying Young Elowen and Rosalind Ford taking over in her late years.
Joey Hickman and Matthew Burns support them with grit and equal stamina, jumping between instruments and livening up the colourful characters that inhabit the Cornish panorama. Schönlatern's design has the hearty and earthy vibes of the costal county, with fishnets, crates, planks, and a lot of wood used to set the visual tones of a fishing town.
It's a musical that presents impeccable balance in all its elements and incredible chemistry among the performers. The 16 numbers are spaced out well over the two hours of active stage-time and its direction drives the plot seamlessly. It's an exceptionally impressive result for the creative team, who put a lot at stake deciding to adapt such a beloved and well-known piece of literature.
Photo credit: Jethro Compton Productions