This new Celtic folk musical by Jethro Compton (who also directs) and Darren Clark is currently running in the Southwark Playhouse’s Little, with a cast of five actor-musicians bringing F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story to life.
Benjamin Button is born to Roger and Mary in 1919, appearing as a fully-formed seventy year-old man asking his father for a smoke. He is represented by a decrepit puppet with spookily lifelike legs.
Mother can’t cope and finds her end from the cliffs. Father hides his ageing son in the attic, confident he will die soon, but Benjamin gets younger, stronger and sharper by the day.
When an unlocked door gives the sixty year-old Benjamin the “little bit of life” he craves, he’s down the pub for “just beer”, meeting the barmaid, Elowen, who becomes the love of his life.
Weaving the story of “the backwards man” with the folk tradition, and a constant reminder of the days, minutes, seconds that have passed gives the piece heart and humour, and James Marlowe’s performance of a Benjamin who gets more youthful as those around him age – at 40 he is the same age as his wife, at 24 the same age as his son – is believable and touching.
The Cornwall sea is ever-present, with the cliffs, the ships, the walks, a letter in a bottle, a family tragedy, all taking place during Benjamin’s seven decades of life.
Space, too, with his assurance that a man will one day walk on the moon. And a white shawl, wore on a wedding day, to nurse children, to die in, to become the blanket for a baby in his last few days.
The small cast – as well as Marlowe, we have Matthew Burne, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman, Philippa Hogg – evoke a variety of situations and characters (including two chains of events that change Benjamin’s life forever). The puppets of old Benjamin, his children, and the child Benjamin do not appear realistic, but nevertheless are full of life.
The lighting and smoke evoke the Cornish coast, and a broken clock reminds us of the vagaries of time. Stage and lighting design by Schonlatern, costumes by Cecilia Trano, and sound by Michael Woods all add to the effect.
At two and a half hours, this musical is a deeply engrossing, charming and moving piece of whimsical storytelling. A gem which will surely have a further life beyond this short run.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button runs until the 8 June. Photo credits Jethro Compton Productions.