The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Southwark Playhouse, London

Book and Lyrics: Jethro Compton

Music and Lyrics: Darren Clark

Director: Jethro Compton

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Cornish mysticism replaces jazz-age American dreaming in this beautiful, engaging, fizzing version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous short story.

Transposed and translated from the West Coast of the US to a small fishing village, the curious case now becomes a folk tale revolving around a beautiful love story, new-traditional music and watertight storytelling. It’s a rumination on the nature of time, opportunity, chance, destiny and love – weighty stuff, but the cast treat it so lightly it’s only in the quiet moments you realise how much of an impact it’s really having.

Benjamin is born as an old, creaking man, destined to age in reverse. We follow him from being locked in his room as an aberration, to ordering “just a beer” at the local pub when technically in his very early teens, and then stretching his legs to explore the world and fight in WWII, have a family and grow young enough to cease to live any more. Through all this we see him guided from the moment he sees her by an encompassing love for local barmaid Elowen Keane.

Some serious skill is on show from all sides here – creating unbelievable tension in the love stories, despair when we think things are going awry for Benjamin, and tears when they do. Packed with sweetness, tempered by including bitter disappointment at just the right points, it would be a disservice to try and call it a “feel good” hit, but there’s no denying its power to generate a powerful emotional punch. It’s strange to sit in a dark room full of sniffing, teary people but with this show, that experience is likely on the cards for every night’s audience.

Musically it’s taking a lot from Cornwall’s folk styles, sea shanties and (as the programme says) Mumford and Sons. In spite of their influence (kidding), truly these are wonderful pieces. It’s entirely possible that the combination of the lyrics, music and performance for The Moon and the Sea has created the perfect love song. A Matter of Timeeloquently argues the show’s philosophical point about fate and destiny, and A Little Life needs to be recognised as an inspirational heavyweight.

Playing numerous characters (44 according to the programme) who crop up through Benjamin’s life as well as providing their own musical accompaniment the cast are pretty flawless. It’s a tough gig, but well done to the casting team who have found not just five triple-threats, but five quadruple-threats. All is framed by the creative magic brought forth in Schönlatern’s stage and lighting design, Michael Woods’ sound design and Chi-San Howard’s movement.

The first half is a quick, rolling thumper of a show, the second half more reflective and emotionally driven. Jethro Compton and Darren Clark have, along with their collaborators, created something filled with actual magic – forget Brad Pitt, this retelling achieves greatness by becoming so much more than the original material.

Runs until 8 June 2019 | Image: Jethro Compton Productions

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