Review by Daz Gale
A lot has changed since Benjamin Button was last in London. We've had a global pandemic, three lockdowns, two monarchs, 12 Taylor Swift albums and 75 Prime Ministers. This show got a real buzz from its first run so I was keen to see if it lived up to the hype. The question is in this ever-changing world would this musical have aged well?
Based on the short story from F. Scott Fitzgerald from 1922, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button was famously adapted into a movie starring Brad Pitt in 2008. The musical adaptation was first seen in 2019 but due to uncertain events, a future life was all but certain. It tells the story of a man who ages in reverse and charts his life from the beginning with his unusual birth as an old man.
Written by Jethro Compton, this fantastical story has the potential to descend into farcical nature. Seeing Benjamin born as a suited pensioner with a stick and a pipe is as absurd as it gets (and doesn’t bear thinking about how painful that labour must have been). The initial laughter at the situation fades away fairly quickly as we buy into this persons life in the truest form of escapism possible. This is all thanks to the genius and tender writing, full of heart and emotion with an unrivaled ability to connect with its audience. While it isn’t without its laugh out loud moments, there is nothing silly about this show whatsoever – with its beauty a sign of the intelligence to be found in the detailed writing.
Jethro Compton also directs the piece as well as designing the set. With that, he has made full use of the brand new larger Southwark Playhouse Elephant with action taking place on multi levels and utilising every inch possible in a way that feels far grander than the still relatively smaller space compared to some West End venues – perhaps this is a sign of things to come and where they plan for this show to go?
Perfectly complementing the sensitive and perfectly executed book is the music in this show. With music and lyrics from Darren Clark (with lyrics from Jethro Compton) they continue the growing trend in musicals with folk inspirations perfectly befitting its Cornwall setting and drawing obvious comparisons to the recent sensation that was Fisherman’s Friends. Relying on a cast of actor-musos (wait, don’t write it off just yet – I know there are many who have strong opinions about that) the songs come alive with a great energy and power of which I haven’t seen the like of since Amelie – a show I couldn’t help but regularly compare this to, thanks to its fantastical often wacky nature but overarching abundance of heart.
Musical highlights in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button include the stunning act two opener ‘The Tide Is Comin’ In’, the beautiful ‘A Little Life’ (not to be confused with the West End play of the same name) and the magnificent ‘The Moon And The Sea’. There’s not a dud song to be found here, to be honest. All the musical numbers have the same high quality and all their many reprises that make up the majority of act two never get repetitive or boring and are always glorious and satisfying.
I mentioned the cast of actor-musos and what a cast they are. The titular role of Benjamin Button is played by Jamie Parker. Without the use of prosthetics, make up of wigs he still manages to convince the audience of his various ages from his birth as an old man all the way up to his teenage years – a true testament to his capabilities and versatility as an actor. Always captivating, he gives a sympathetic and at times understated performance which makes it all the easier to fall in love with the character. I wondered how this show would pull off the years which sees Benjamin as a child but it was handled in the most beautifully impactful way possible.
Molly Osborne is a highlight in her role as Elowen Keene, Benjamin’s love interest. The slow burn of a relationship is handled with such tenderness and patience, it demands the slightest and subtlest of choices to convey the steady growth of their relationship – to this extent, Molly is a powerhouse, exhibiting sensational chemistry with Jamie Parker’s Benjamin to create a couple you can’t help but buy into. Other highlights among the ridiculously talented and consistent cast of 12 are Philippa Hogg who is an early standout as Mary Button, Jack Quarton in his role of Mr Bennett and Benedict Salter in a difficult but ominous role as Benjamin’s father Roger.
Choreography and movement direction from Chi-San Howard creates some stunningly intricate and often unexpected pieces, especially bringing the several “chain of events” sequences to life in a brilliantly impactful way. Zoe Spurrs lighting brings the relatively dark set to life in at atmospheric way, revealing some tricks along the way that transforms the space to beautiful effect.
In the nicest possible way, the first 2 productions I reviewed at the brand new Southwark Playhouse Elephant didn’t quite hit the mark in the way I had hoped from a venue as exciting as this, both scoring the same underwhelming (to put it nicely) rating from me. Part of me wondered if the theatre was cursed and I was destined to never give any production there anything more than 2 stars – my goal going into this show was to break the 3 star barrier at the very least. It’s safe to say The Curious Case of Benjamin Button not only managed that – it absolutely defied all expectations.
There is something incredibly special about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Aside from the exceptional writing in both the book and lyrics and the obviously phenomenally talented cast, the show possesses a spirit you seldom see in the theatre. Its ability to truly and deeply connect with each and every audience member is the kind of aspect most shows could only dream of achieving. However, you are left in no doubt that the show has completely penetrated your heart in a more emotional moment towards the shows climax which, I’m not ashamed to say, had me bawling like a baby. There is a real understanding for the story and how to bring its heart to the forefront. The way it never laughs at the situation and instead has us all sympathise and root for this unlikely hero is part of the reason the tone and themes involved are pulled off so successfully.
A note in the programme hints at a future life beyond this fairly limited run – I’m not a betting man but I would say that is all but a certainty for a show as fully formed as this. From what I heard about the shows previous run, it seems to be getting better with age. If we are still in the infancy of the life of Benjamin Button, I can only imagine how exciting the future is going to be. Mark my words – this show is going to be big and is bound to break out to enjoy a long and successful life. A true musical highlight of 2023, see it while you can so you can say you were there before it was huge.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button plays at Southwark Playhouse Elephant until 1st July. Tickets from https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/
Photos by Juan Coolio