‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ review

Theatre, Musicals
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Southwark Playhouse, 2019
© Jethro Compon productions James Marlowe, Philippa Hogg

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Ebullient and moving folk-musical adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald's supernatural short story

Writer-director Jethro Compton strikes fringe gold with this beguiling musical adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story about a man who ages backwards, probably better known for the lumbering 2008 Brad Pitt film.

Like the movie, Compton’s take on ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ is a very free adaptation, being a lovably ramshackle and surging folk opera in which the story is transposed from nineteenth-century Baltimore to twentieth-century Cornwall. Benjamin is the son of an ordinary local couple who are horrified to discover that their newborn ‘child’ is – inexplicably – an 80-year-old man, with no memories but fluent English and a smoking habit. Benjamin’s mother is so upset she kills herself; his father keeps Benjamin locked away in the house, assuming he will live out his final years there. In fact, it becomes slowly apparent that Benjamin is getting younger. After some years have passed, James Marlowe’s gentle, troubled Benjamin is allowed to go to the pub on the sly, where he meets a vivacious barmaid named Elowen, who will go on to be the (extremely complicated) love of his life.

The production is defined by the wide-eyed brio of the five-strong, all-instrumentalist cast, and director Compton and musical director Darren Clark’s propulsive, harmony-drenched folk songs. And unlike the portentous film, the script is infused with the humour of the shanties the music pays homage to. It’s moving, too, especially the final section: it’s ultimately a story about how we confront mortality, what we make of our lives, and how we care for each other at the beginning and the end.

There’s definitely stuff papered over by the intimate staging. The whole young-woman-falls-for-much-older-man-for-no-obvious-reason thing is a bit bleurgh. There are some sentimental contrivances that absolutely aren’t needed, and some structural stuff that doesn’t work. None of this seems very relevant now, but it’ll need work if it’s to go further than Southwark Playhouse. But in this little room, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ is something very special indeed.

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