The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at Southwark Playhouse
Benjamin Button is born an old man, trapped in a body in which he doesn’t belong. His bewildered and embarrassed parents lock him away in an attic, branding him a pariah. Benjamin dreams of freedom, adventure and finding love. As his hope of achieving this begins to diminish and he resigns himself to a life of solitude, he meets a local girl named Elowen and so begins a love affair against the odds but also against time. As Elowen grows older and Benjamin grows younger, countless obstacles obstruct their paths.
When we hear the word musical we perhaps automatically imagine the West End or Broadway. Show tunes, choruses and larger-than-life performances are elements most of us might associate with the genre. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in its world premiere at Southwark Playhouse, offers us something different. A cast of just five in the incredibly intimate studio setting invites us into the fantastical world of the play and offers complete escapism throughout the entire 130-minute run. Carefully choreographed scene transitions make for a smooth and slick production, preventing the pace from ever faltering and holding theatre-goers in spellbound engagement throughout.
The story is a fairytale but director and producer Jethro Compton cleverly grounds it in reality by relocating the action to a small fishing village in Cornwall. Celtic folk music holds influence with an accordion, cello, guitars, fiddles and percussion all played by the cast. The songs are catchy and memorable, many of the lyrics profound and beautifully written by Compton and musical director Darren Clark.
The thrust staging, consisting of wooden decking and a fisherman’s net hanging over the small set, establishes the world of this Cornish coastal village where folklore and reality intertwine. The sound effects of waves remind us throughout of the ebb and flow of time – the play’s central theme – and a smoke machine gives the impression of a sea mist, which suggests a sense of mystery and an entry into the unknown. Puppetry is used to represent Benjamin when he is first born, and later his children, and this works well in emphasising the fragility of life. There are countless intricate details layered throughout the production, providing a feast for the senses but it is of course the cast who captivate us the most.
Matthew Burns, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman, Philippa Hogg and James Marlowe make up the ensemble, complementing one another well and giving the audience a sense that they all truly believe in the story they are telling and the themes being explored. It really is a privilege to behold such wonderfully versatile talent. Not one, but two standing ovations occurred at the end of the evening and the cast were greeted with rapturous, well warranted applause. They had done what only truly great performers – and productions – are capable of doing: extracting us from our own worlds and ushering us into another. There was laughter. There were tears. Mostly, though, there was a sense of enchantment and as the house lights came up, a shared realisation among the audience that what we had seen was something special, beautiful and unique.
Photos: Jethro Compton Productions
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is at Southwark Playhouse from 15th May until 8th June 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.