The Curious Case of Benjamin Button review – folk musical beats the movie

Southwark Playhouse, London
A stunning cast sing, play and even puppeteer as the life-lived-backwards tale is relocated to Cornwall in ingenious style

This musical has almost nothing to do with the 2009 David Fincher movie of the same name. It doesn’t even have much in common with the original 1922 F Scott Fitzgerald short story on which the film was based. All it shares is the central conceit of a life lived backwards – a human born as an elderly man who regresses to infancy over the course of his three score years and 10. And, for all its flaws, the show tells this story – using puppetry, smart staging and some fine musicianship – rather more effectively than Brad Pitt and co managed.

Jethro Compton’s production relocates the tale to a Cornish fishing village, starting in 1918 and moving towards the 1980s. The setting is an excuse to turn the story into a Celtic-themed musical and, much like the cast’s wardrobe, Darren Clark’s original songs have a touch of the Mumford & Sons about them: rather nondescript, blandly anthemic ballads dressed up as folk songs, with a couple of earworms that succeed in setting the tone.

What brings this production to life is the inspired staging and the remarkable performances. The tight five-person cast – James Marlowe, Matt Burns, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman and Philippa Hogg – do everything between them. Each takes on multiple roles; they sing perfect harmonies, manipulate puppet characters, and play at least two instruments from an assortment of violin, cello, piano, guitar, trombone, accordion and drums.

It was probably unwise of Compton to direct his own script – a second pair of eyes might have trimmed half an hour of flab – but this version lingers on some aspects of the story unexplored by the film or book. A woman giving birth to an elderly man is not presented as some surrealist thought experiment but as a traumatising experience, while the protagonist’s dilemmas are heartbreaking rather than whimsical. Even when Button is being played by a junkyard puppet – as he is at the start and end of the show – he elicits empathy. It’s a freak show that humanises the freak.


John Lewis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Promises, Promises review – Bacharach's musical makeover of Wilder's Apartment
A revival of Neil Simon’s adaptation of the Billy Wilder classic, with songs by Bacharach and Hal David, is well performed but gratingly anachronistic

Michael Billington

18, Jan, 2017 @11:28 AM

Article image
You Are Here review – 1969 moon landings spark musical midlife adventure
Wendi Peters seizes the role of a suburbanite who is inspired by the lunar broadcast to embark on a spontaneous trip

Chris Wiegand

20, May, 2021 @9:00 PM

Article image
Carrie: The Musical returns to haunt Southwark
Show with a history of financial and other disasters to open at Southwark Playhouse on 1 May

Hannah Ellis-Petersen

13, Feb, 2015 @7:06 PM

Article image
Film review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett star in 166 minutes of twee tedium about a life lived backwards. By Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw

06, Feb, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Local Hero review – oil-movie gem strikes a salty musical note
Bill Forsyth’s bittersweet comic drama about a Scottish village’s fight with an oil firm sheds its whimsy in this tougher version, scored by Mark Knopfler

Peter Ross

24, Mar, 2019 @11:22 AM

Article image
Bananaman review – can Eric Wimp turn into a musical superhero?
After some banana-skin slip-ups, this comedy about the spotty teenager turned caped blunderer gathers some final, resounding laughter

Kate Wyver

05, Jan, 2018 @2:29 PM

Article image
The Life review – New York's sleazy underbelly gets a musical sparkle
This show about 42nd Street in the 1980s is imaginatively staged with the ever-magnificent Sharon D Clarke but it’s a tough sell

Michael Billington

29, Mar, 2017 @11:00 PM

Article image
The Magician’s Elephant review – a puppet you’ll never forget
It is spirited and witty, with superb puppetry and comedic performances, but this new musical’s songs don’t stay with you and the messages are overdone

Chris Wiegand

28, Oct, 2021 @11:01 PM

Article image
Yeast Nation: The Triumph of Life review – a defeat for theatre
Musical set on the prehistoric ocean floor and starring singing yeast particles is a swampy mess

Arifa Akbar

27, Jul, 2022 @12:25 PM

Article image
Working review – Lin-Manuel Miranda retunes Terkel's paean to American labour
This musical revue – which originally flopped on Broadway – features exquisite performances and songs by Hamilton’s creator but still feels quaintly nostalgic

Lyn Gardner

09, Jun, 2017 @10:53 AM