Southwark Playhouse, London – until 8 June 2019
The film based on Scott Fitzgerald’s story of a life lived backwards, born old and ending in babyhood, was pretty awful. So I did not leap at the news that Jethro Compton and composer Darren Clarke had made a musical of it – transporting the action to Cornwall 1918, the war years and after. But curiosity gripped, Southwark doesn’t often programme anything dull, and I bought an impulse matinee ticket. Even though I knew guiltily that owing to the annoying late slot (matinee ending at 6+) I might have to skip at the interval and miss the last 45-minute act.
Which I did. So I can’t mouse-rate it. But after 75 enchanted minutes I fervently hope this lovely quirky show goes on and upward, and especially on tour. Take it to the seaside, and to places beyond the London bubble. It had me from the first Cornish gull-cry, buoy bell, storm sounds, and folktale –vigorous storytelling. It kept me all the way, the modern-Celtic songs and dances driven by five actor-musicians reeling and stamping and ever in motion on the tiny stage below the fishing-nets.
The sincerity of the piece makes a whimsically impossible tale into something that drills rapidly into real feeling, real wondering compassion for all of us who whirl through our brief lifespans in the normal direction. The birth of the old, old man in a bathchair wanting his pipe is met by the parents with all the dismay of any grotesque abnormality: his confinement in an attic with only a tiny window to see the moon is uncomfortably reminiscent of the current exposure of how some deeply autistic children are kept.
In those first scenes Ben is a life size puppet, gloriously devised by In The Bellows from driftwood and wicker creel. It – he! – is handled with intense sensitivity. We see him breathing asleep, and his song of longing “All I want is to live a little life, feel a little freedom, see a little sea” seems to come from the ragged wooden mouth.
The mother’s song before her clifftop suicide is equally wrenching and real. When released from the room as his age becomes more fiftyish, he is played by the real James Marlowe: meek and diffident and sweetly childlike.
As he sets eyes on his life’s love, he is any older man struck hopeless by a young girl. When, now young enough for the WW2 Navy he meets her again more equal it is any love story. Love, loss, war, disappointment, hope are so real, so musically deft and honestly rendered that the whimsy is irrelevant. Button has his unique and difficult life problem, but so do we all..
The tight cast – Marlowe and Matt Burns, Rosalind Ford, Joey Hickman and Philippa Hogg – tell the story in turn, sing harmony, and play fiddle, cello, piano, guitar, trombone, accordion and occasionally drums. The move wonderfully well and radiate sincerity and a sense of an urgent tale to tell . I suspect that if I had been able to stay I would have shed a tear at his infant ending. Hope to go back
box office 0207 407 0234 southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
To 8 June