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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at Southwark Playhouse

Forty-six characters, assuming I’ve counted correctly, are shared between twelve actors, who also individually and collectively demonstrate substantial actor-musicianship – there isn’t a separate band or orchestra, though the creatives have been careful not (as has been seen elsewhere over the years) to have someone lugging a double bass around the stage whilst simultaneously performing a dance routine. Some of the music is folksy, some of it celebratory, some of it both, and if a few of the twenty-two musical numbers sound a bit repetitive, there are eight reprises, and ‘Matter of Time’ is, like Shakespeare’s Henry VI, in three parts. Ironically too much time is spent repeating the refrain, “it’s only a matter of time”, and the script is at pains to provide details of precisely how much time has passed between one key event in the narrative and another: we’re even told how many days there were between D-Day and VE Day.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. Molly Osborne and Jamie Parker. Photo Juan Coolio.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. Molly Osborne and Jamie Parker. Photo Juan Coolio.

Sometimes, it is admittedly rather useful not to have to think about how ‘old’ the title character, Benjamin (Jamie Parker) is. Forgive the spoiler of spoilers here, but there’s no getting around the key point that Benjamin is born an old man and gets younger with the passing years before dying as an infant, not being able to do any of the things he used to, as his mental faculties and motor skills regress to that of a newborn. To tell this story over the course of two hours and forty-five minutes (there is an interval), there are plenty of embellishments. There are neighbours, work colleagues, other pub regulars, family members, and so on.

I re-read the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story before seeing this adaptation, and plot-wise, I prefer the original, where Benjamin begins studies at Yale but is thrown out by a registrar who thinks he (Benjamin) is really a middle-aged madman – decades later (or earlier, for those who insist) he sticks the proverbial middle finger up at Yale by enrolling at Harvard, thrashing Yale’s American football team, and graduating, albeit with some difficulty, because he is already regressing into adolescence by his final year.

Re-set in Cornwall, the musical is bookended by what is presumably a Cornish language song – it is of some regret a translation isn’t provided in the programme. What the programme does provide is a breakdown of the associated costs of staging this production, which makes for an interesting read, if only because the cost per seat at full capacity (and the show wasn’t quite at full capacity at the performance I attended) is higher than the full price being charged. According to the programme, “this is often the case when producing a new piece of theatre, especially when producing a new musical”.

As for the production, it held my attention throughout, even if it was and felt twenty minutes too long, especially given the original story can be read within half an hour. It’s good to be told, to be fair, exactly where a given scene is set as well as some context and background details. The flipside is that there’s little left to the imagination, but that, to me, is a negligible point in a lifelong story that proceeds relatively briskly. Direct addresses to the audience call to mind Jersey Boys, and this show rightly avoids indulging in sentimentality by way of lamenting the predicament of Benjamin, who is always having to deal with others who can’t and/or won’t understand the incongruence of him not acting the age he looks.

Jamie Parker, mind you, does brilliantly to portray an old newborn as well as he does a teenage grandfather, mostly through modulation of voice. As someone who worked in social care in the pandemic, I found it incredibly refreshing to see an older character actually walk as an older person would, and not with one of those weird and exaggerated stagey limps. Jonathan Charles as ‘Drunkard’ (could the writers really not have given the character a name?), who has let a lover go seventy years ago and has lived to regret it, proves the adage about there being no such thing as a ‘small part’ – every movement and slurred line is spot on.

There are some fine voices in this cast, particularly from Molly Osborne, in the role of Benjamin’s love interest Elowen Keene, and Anna Fordham’s Locryn, Benjamin and Elowen’s older and only surviving child, is as convincing as a small boy as a working adult. Overall, it’s a curious story indeed, but one with some excellent and heartfelt musical numbers. It would be good to have a cast recording if budgetary constraints allow.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Discover a sleepy fishing harbour on the north coast of Cornwall, home to a most curious story.

Born in rather unusual circumstances, Benjamin Button is an old man, not at the end of his life, but at the beginning. Locked away from the world and branded a monster, Benjamin dreams of the chance to live a little life. More than anything, he dreams of love. With no hope of finding it, Benjamin resigns himself to a life of solitude, until, one day, a miracle occurs – the local barmaid, Elowen Keene. But as the years come and go, time and tide threaten to tear the two apart.

Experience this extraordinary, inspirational, and timeless tale of a love that defies all odds. Set to a thunderous, foot-stomping folk score, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button reminds us, no matter how much time we have, to make every second count.

Based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby and The Tender and the Damned.

ATG Productions, GBA, Gavin Kalin Productions, Eilene Davidson Productions, and
Jethro Compton Productions
present
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
– A New Musical –
Book & Lyrics by Jethro Compton
Music & Lyrics by Darren Clark
22 May – 1 July 2023
https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

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