Friday 9 June 2023

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Review

Southwark Playhouse, London


Book & lyrics by Jethro Compton
Music & lyrics by Darren Clark
Directed & designed by Jethro Compton

Molly Osborne and Jamie Parker

This new musical is a fine fusion of music, song and acting. Taking F.Scott Fitzgerald’s famous /short story of a baby born as an old man who then spends his life getting younger, Jethro Compton and Darren Clark have crafted the yarn into a fabulous fable.

Compton has translated Fitzgerald’s tale to a Cornish setting and the show proves to be a lovingly crafted tribute to that region. With Button being born aged 70 in 1918, the narrative also offers an eclectic perspective on the 20th century.

The musical had an earlier outing at the other Southwark Playhouse space in 2019, where the cramped stage was cluttered with the trappings of the Cornish fishing communities. In this new larger venue those trappings are still there, only now they enhance rather than overpower the musical. And much as this show and its songs are all about time, so too have the last 4 years allowed the show to mature beautifully. No longer is Benjamin portrayed by a puppet, but in a stroke of inspired casting, Jamie Parker plays the title role. Wisely avoiding prosthetics to show his reverse-ageing, Parker instead relies upon a few distinctive costume touches (bowler hat and pipe suggesting his dotage) and above all delivers a masterclass in performance, convincing us of his age throughout the show as we witness his transformation from being aged 70 to around 20 or so.

As his life, love, and family age around him, Parker elicits genuine and profound sympathy as he inches towards the poignant and inevitable endgame that we know awaits him. 

It’s not just Parker though. Compton has assembled a magnificent multi-role company of 11 who perfectly pick up all manner of parts. Notable amongst this troupe is Molly Osborne as Elowen, Benjamin’s love and then his wife. All the company are magnificently voiced and it is a credit to them that Compton’s fast-moving lyrics (that occasionally drift too far into exposition) are crystal clear.

Credit too to these actors for creating one of the finest actor-musician troupes ever assembled. The range of instruments played is orchestral in its range with these multi-skilled performers offering up a full complement of string, wind and percussion and creating a sound that is, quite simply, gorgeous.

If there’s a flaw to the piece it’s in the second half, where the credibility of Benjamin’s return to his ultimate nativity would be a tough nut for any dramatist to crack. The show’s creatives wisely avoid dressing Parker as an adult-baby, but there are moments towards the end when perhaps a little too much is asked of the audience’s powers of imagination.  

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a bold and brilliant contribution to the canon of new musical writing.

Runs until 1st July
Photo credit: Juan Coolio

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