REVIEW: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Southwark Playhouse)

Mummy thought it a most curious idea to create a musical version of Benjamin Button. Mummy has a vague recollection of having watched the film but it clearly did not make a lasting impression on her. This did not stop Mummy from being excited about seeing the show because everything is better in musical form. Mummy is also a particular fan of the Southwark Playhouse, which is fast becoming her favourite London venue (not least because the typical audience demographic at this venue means that the ladies loo queue is surprisingly short).

Mummy’s anticipation was further heightened after recently seeing another brilliant show with music from Darren Clark. In fact, it was also set in Cornwall and filled with beautiful music inspired by the folk storytelling tradition. Mummy suspects that very few of those in the audience would have also been familiar with that show, because it was aimed at families. But as Mummy said in her review of The Boy and the Mermaid, it was the perfect demonstration of how it is possible to create contemporary theatre for children that is of the same quality as that for adults. Darren Clark is a brilliant example of a composer and lyricist who affords the same degree of respect to both audiences. He is therefore truly deserving of all the accolades he is currently receiving for his work on Benjamin Button.

Coincidentally, we also recognised three out of the five actor-musicians in Benjamin Button from other family shows . Mrs Mummy came home on Tuesday night saying that the cast felt very familiar. It turned out that we had seen Joey Hickman in We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, and Philippa Hogg and Matthew Burns together in The Scarecrow’s Wedding (which the programme informs us is yet another show composed by the wonderful Darren Clark). So not only can these ridiculously talented people play a seemingly infinite number of musical instruments (at the same time as singing!) but they are also excellent entertainers of the world’s hardest to please audience i.e. small humans and their associated grown-ups. But anyway, back to Benjamin Button…..

Mrs Mummy had returned on Tuesday with a positive report of her trip to the Southwark Playhouse. She also gave Mummy some very useful tips on where to sit to avoid her view being occasionally obscured by the blocking (a summary of which is to avoid the front row at the corners of the stage). More importantly, she reported that there was some really beautiful music and that the only thing that might be a barrier to enjoying this would be an inability to suspend your disbelief about the plot.

Mrs Mummy need not have worried about the latter. Although it is a fundamentally ridiculous premise that a woman might give birth to a fully grown man who then ages in reverse, the clever way in which the story is told means that somehow this doesn’t matter. Actors play multiple roles (and instruments). Roles rotate between actors and puppets. Transitions between different stages of Benjamin’s life are marked by overt narration, as well as simple changes in the appearance of the key characters. All of these changes take place in full view of the audience. Where puppets feature, they are intentionally not designed to look like real people but are brought to life by very natural movement. And in avoiding the trap of trying to make the implausible plot realistic, writer and director Jethro Compton nonetheless manages to make it believable.

Humorous and heartbreaking in places, this is a story about living in the moment, instead of looking to the past with regret or the future with fear. The intimate setting of The Little at Southwark Playhouse is the perfect venue for this special show, which is a brilliant showcase of new musical writing and incredibly talented actor-musicians. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button harnesses the power of the folk tradition to tell enduring tales of the transience of life. (Mrs Mummy did not understand this sentence but was happy with this explanation: “Folk stories last. People don’t.”) And it’s not on for much longer, so grab yourself a ticket!

RATING: Raindrops, whiskers, kettles, mittens and brown-paper packages (aka five out of five of my favourite things.) 

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is at the Southwark Playhouse until 8 June 2019. Get tickets here.