The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a tale which has long stirred the imaginations of its readers, charming us with its balance of mystery and relatability, and its central themes of life’s cyclical nature, its inevitable gain and loss of both respect and dependency, and the relentless passage of time.

Jethro Compton and Darren Clark’s new adaptation manages to honour these themes, whilst wisely not attempting to cram every detail of the original into the Southwark Playhouse’s ‘Little’. Instead, he provides a setting which supports the change in medium, taking the story’s mysticism and tying it to the oral storytelling tradition of Celtic folktales with a very well-constructed book.

The helplessness of both extreme youth and age were shown aptly through puppets, giving us characters literally unable to function without the help of another. Designed with the aesthetic of what might wash up in the sea, wood chips showed the wrinkled expressions of the elderly and bright coloured plastic bottles made the bodies and faces of the children. Unfortunately, however, I found these moments of puppetry the least convincing. Whilst their rough-and-ready design suited the storytelling backdrop if the show, this called for an especially sensitive approach to their operation which was not quite achieved.

The folk tale aspect of this Celtic backdrop allows the story to be told by a cast of just five, creating an ensemble of storytellers, regaling us with deft multi-rolling, expertly played instruments and voices which blend and move together as one with supreme effortlessness. Darren Clark’s music is authentic and emotive, which has us tapping along one minute and crying another. His vocal arrangements are beautifully constructed, whilst the collaborative approach to orchestration, using whichever instruments were available to support them, keeps the narrative driving forwards.

A cast of multi-instrumentalists allows seamless swapping of instruments where necessary, whilst certain instruments provide colourful identity to the characters. This is actor-musicianship done right: whilst the story is being told we barely notice the instruments, but when they are featured they appear simply an extension of the character.

Most notable in this way is Joey Hickman, whose facial expressions and handling of instruments from the accordion to the trombone gives us the core of the show’s comic relief. Matthew Burns’ narrations from behind both the guitar and the drum kit provide the backbone of the ensemble, whilst his acting, particularly as Locryn, is sophisticated and tender. 

In the title role, James Marlowe has the gargantuan task of portraying not only an old man with the mind of a child, but also a child with the mind of an old man, and all the shades in-between. Whilst he gives us the consistency we need in a show with so much multi-rolling, there is very little distinction to us in his characterisation of the different chapters of Button’s life, leaving our title character a little bereft of colour. Still, he handles the most emotionally intense scenes with enough poise that he carries us with him through his various ups and downs of loss and romance.

The younger and older Elowens, Philippa Hogg and Rosalind Ford respectively, are both as faultless as each other. Hogg charms us instantly with her soft, folky voice and playful characterisation, handling the fiddle with easy virtuosity, whilst Ford’s excellent voice is rich with colour and maturity, equal only to the choices she made in her various portrayals – all the while juggling the cello, cajon, shaker and tin whistle.

There is a lot of new musical theatre out there, and sadly the vast majority of it is not good. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button restores my faith, showing how well a story can be adapted and crafted to fit the intimacy of such a small space. In times of social and political difficulty, storytelling is what we need more than anything, especially when we can be reminded of the world’s little moments of magic. I sincerely hope this show will have a long and successful future.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 8th June, 2019.