Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Southwark Playhouse Elephant

The best show I saw in all of 2019 is back – folk musical The Curious Case of Benjamin Button makes a glorious return to Southwark Playhouse

“We all have time…”

If anything was going to get the earworm that was “Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Edgar Allan Edgar Allan” out of my brain, then it was always going to be the “it’s all just a matter of time” refrain from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Much is made about the memorableness of songs from musicals (often by lazy reviewers) when the reality is often that if you do remember a tune, it’s because of the number of times the composer has repeated it! Here, Darren Clark is certainly guilty of the latter but crucially, it is the entire crux of this glorious show distilled into that one phrase – a three second elevator pitch that will break your heart and see your spirit soar.

I adored this show when it first took up residency in Southwark Playhouse’s studio theatre back in 2019, ranking it as my favourite of the entire year and joining the chorus of many for it to return. A pandemic may have intervened but investment has been procured, developments made, the company expanded and Clark (music & lyrics) and Jethro Compton’s (book & lyrics) superlative British folk musical has possibly even more emotional impact as it sets up shop in Southwark Playhouse’s newest space. F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story may have had a Hollywood film adaptation but I’m willing to bet that this is the version that will endure in our cultural history (West End transfer announced by year-end please).

It’s all just a matter of time for everyone, but particularly for Benjamin Button who is born as a man of 70 and soon realises that he is ageing backwards. His family tragically struggle to deal with him but as soon as he is able to exert a measure of independence, he breaks out in the world at large in his native Cornwall, finding love with the luminous Elowen and realising that the struggle will be a lifelong one, especially once kids arrive on the scene. Folding in events from WWII to the moon landing alongside personal milestones, it shouldn’t be as effective as it is but once again, the show got me bawling, finding a vein of elemental, universal truth even through the intense pecularity of this particular story.

A huge part of that is Clark’s score, a masterpiece of new British musical theatre writing, now enhanced as the original company of 5 actor-musicians has now grown to 12. Deeply influenced by the Cornish setting, intricate folk melodies flow from voice to fiddle, flute and more, shanties resound across the decades, and scintillating harmonies elevate every single refrain into something spectacular. Incredibly too, so many of these tunes felt familiar despite it being over four years since I last heard them, a sign that they tap into something fundamental in our collective psyche – so many of them feeling like they’ve existed forever, a part of pub singer repertoires for years.

Compton’s direction also has a considerable role to play, evolving its vision with the increased scale here, and bringing in choreography and movement direction from Chi-San Howard really allows the multi-roling ensemble to maintain visual impact throughout to match the musical output. And casting Jamie Parker and Molly Osborne as leads offer more of an emotional throughline – Parker is astoundingly good always slightly at odds with the world and Osborne brings real clarity to trials of dealing with such a unique situation. There’s not a weak link here at all though (shoutout to OG returnees Matt Burns and Philippa Hogg – the latter particularly devastating as Benjamin’s mother) – I’ve already seen this production twice and am booked in again, see you there?

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Juan Coolio
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is booking at Southwark Playhouse Elephant until 1st July

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