The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Reviewed – 17th May 2019
“a thoroughly fascinating, moving and evocative piece of theatre”
Written in 1922 by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is just one of many short stories that comprise his “Tales of the Jazz Age” collection; though undoubtedly one of the better-known. Fitzgerald was inspired by Mark Twain who lamented the fact that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end. Fitzgerald tried to turn this idea on its head, but instead discovered that youth and old age are mirrors of each other. A witty and insightful satire it tells the story of Benjamin Button who is born an old man and mysteriously begins ageing backwards. At the beginning of his life he is withered and worn, but as he continues to grow younger he embraces life, falls in love, goes to war, has children, goes to school and eventually, as his mind begins to devolve again, returns to the care of his nurses.
A difficult tale to categorise, but at its heart it is a fantasy. A fairy-tale. A love story underpinned by a mysterious curse. Writer Jethro Compton with composer Darren Clark have embraced that heart and transplanted it into a Cornish folk tale to produce a thoroughly fascinating, moving and evocative piece of theatre. The story is told in a time-honoured fashion by the five characters, washed up on the rugged Cornish coast. And the music emerges naturally from the ebb and flow of the narrative as though one cannot exist without the other. This extends to the five cast – all master story tellers and multi-instrumentalists – who perform, move, act and sing together as one. You can hear it in their harmonies which are breathtakingly beautiful.
Whatever liberties have been taken with Fitzgerald’s story, in my mind, only improve on the original. Spanning most of the twentieth century, the epic structure fits perfectly into the small-town Cornish setting. This is ‘Under Milk Wood’ meets ‘Sliding Doors’ as we are shown how the smallest chain of events can change a life irrevocably – for better or for worse. The show is a conjuring trick where seventy years are crammed into two hours and over forty characters into the five actors onstage. With Chi-San Howard’s choreography it is a master class in dexterity.
When not behind the piano, guitar, accordion, drum kit, Matthew Burns and Joey Hickman have the lion’s share of the roles. Meanwhile, James Marlowe completely nails the unenviable task of portraying Benjamin Button reversing from sixty to twenty with an outstanding performance (the very old and the very young Benjamin are puppets forged from the flotsam and jetsam of the Cornish beach). Like a broken clock that tells the right time twice a day, he finds true love twice in his life. With the same person: Philippa Hogg and Rosalind Ford play respectively (among a myriad other characters of course) the young Elowen, whom he marries and the older Elowen with whom he is reunited; and it is these two who steal the show and provide the most haunting and beautiful moments. And with Ford’s cello, Hogg’s violin and their combined voices, I defy anyone to remain dry eyed throughout the evening.
This is quite a sensational piece of musical theatre that takes a curious tale and adds its very own eccentricities. The only minor quibble is that it is just a bit too long, but that said, the magic sustains from start to finish. Or from finish to start, whichever way you want to look at it.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography courtesy Jethro Compton Productions
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Southwark Playhouse until 8th June
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: