Southwark Playhouse, London – until 8 June 2019
Jethro Compton has made me cry before. At the Southwark Playhouse too no less, albeit in its former location, as a young JM Barrie in a truly imaginative staging of The Boy James. This time though, he’s wearing the multiple hats of book-writer, co-lyricist and director of this adaptation of the F Scott Fitzgerald short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And reader, I bawled!
Some of those tears were of joy, at the unexpected discovery of a sensationally good new British musical. With the story’s relocation to Cornwall, Darren Clarke’s (composer, co-lyricist and musical director) score leans heavily into folk song and shanty rhythms to glorious effect. These are songs that feel like they have always existed, elevated by powerful dynamic changes and harmonies to live a life in reverse for.
And Compton amps up the timeless feel of a fable by using an actor-muso ensemble of five – Matt Burns, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman, Philippa Hogg and James Marlowe – to tell the story and boy are they stunningly good. They take on multiple roles, play multiple instruments, and break our hearts in multiple ways as they spare us little of the deep emotion of the story of a man who ages backward due to a quirk of fate, but who slowly resolves to live that life to the fullest.
The impact on his family is what reaches inside you and literally squeezes those tears out, time and again. But there’s humour here too, a balance of light and shade that alchemises into something truly affecting. Schönlatern’s atmospheric and inventive set design is playful and perfectly judged, as it cultivates the intimacy of a night down the pub rather than ever feeling staged, even when puppets get involved. Musical theatre of the highest degree.