Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Southwark Playhouse

Occasionally, approaching a review is an absolute breeze, with very little to be critical of. This is a rare joy. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at the Southwark Playhouse is one of these mythical beings. Bright, clever, topical, beautiful, moving and fresh. What more is there to say?

Lots actually. Jethro Compton‘s resetting of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald book in a small Cornish fishing village remakes the story anew. Following the life of Benjamin as he ages in reverse, the complications and heartbreak speak volumes about the folly of youth and the preconceptions we hold about age. A good reworking convinces you of its worth, daring the audience to remember any other version. Film? Brad Pitt? They are all erased as the sounds of the sea and tide envelope the rich story. Darren Clark’s truly magical music shines, using the ancient Cornish language to great effect in this twisted fairy tale. The songs soar, sway and move in a world perfectly created by the duo, with plenty of delectable harmonies. It avoids both the smulchy Americanism of the film (sorry Brad) and also any overly stereotypical portrayal of the west country. With Compton’s company, Jethro Compton Productions, working within the Celtic speaking community this is an almost political retelling and the chance to hear a sometimes-assumed dead language is a real treat.

Well written, great concept, need I say more? Well yes as the crux of theatre is its effectiveness in the space on the day. Performing a full musical involving many characters, and a backwards-ageing one at that in a small theatre space is a challenge. But The show never feels cramped, down to some clever blocking by Compton (writer, director, and Cornish theatre legend, apparently). The lights (Schönlatern) and the costumes (Cecilia Trono) are as versatile as possible and the reinvention of space and character is impressive.

Set down into this perfect melee of talent we have five extraordinary performers. In the style of Once mixed with Rent and then sprinkled with some Mumford and Sons each actor plays at least one if not more instruments as they act, dance and sing. A band area at the back gives an idea of a Celtic greek chorus watching the action (and judging). Rosalind Ford’s clear-as-a-bell voice brings us to tears as Benjamin’s mother and later his wife (multi-rolling, not Oedipus-style). James Marlowe playing Benjamin is a backbone of talent and raw emotion. Phillippa Hogg playing Benjamin’s wife (but young) enchants us. Joey Hickman provides comic relief and some rip-roaring trombone skills. Lastly, Mathew Burns makes sure the whole production stays on time with a metronomic drum beat and some nice harmonies. This case of five actors, supported by a great idea, a wonderful set, clever use of light and sound being able to eclipse the million dollar Hollywood film is astounding. If anyone with half a brain sees this show a west end transfer is not far off.

Did I mention there were puppets made out of sea rubbish? A topical environmental nod is the cherry on the top of this very rich cake. With an overall message of “we all have time” this musical explores the relationship humanity has to time, age and home, focusing on the moments that truly matter and make life worthwhile. With moist eyes and a warm heart, the audience tap their feet along to the rousing jig that the show finishes on, confident, triumphant and an utter pleasure to behold.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is playing the Southwark Playhouse until 8 June. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website.