'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' review — Jamie Parker gives a performance for the ages

Read our four-star review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Jamie Parker, currently in performances at Southwark Playhouse to 1 July.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

A commendable Off-West End musical has got even better on its (presumed) way to the West End and, with luck, beyond. I’m referring not to Operation Mincemeat, which is currently making much the same journey, but to another, very different homegrown musical: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

People often ask where original British musical theatre has gone in this age of ready-made jukebox knockoffs. The happy answer is that it is alive and well and being carefully watered, as evidenced by the heady array of producers (ATG first amongst equals) backing this return engagement of a show that was previously seen in 2019.

Since then, the production has ditched a puppet, more than doubled the size of a five-person cast, and located the ideal leading man in Olivier Award winner Jamie Parker.

Playing the title role of a man who ages backwards (think Merrily We Roll Along on speed), London and Broadway’s original Harry Potter gives a performance for the ages. Parker will next appear in the U.K. premiere in August of Next to Normal but, as of this writing, it’s pretty well impossible to imagine a further life for Benjamin Button without his talent leading from the front.

With minimal makeup and not a trace of thespian grandstanding, Parker brings surpassing empathy to an assignment taken in the 2008 film version of the same source by Brad Pitt. The origin for both these adaptations is the 1922 short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald – better known, of course, for The Great Gatsby, which seems to get a fresh theatrical adaptation every five minutes.

One has to wonder what this urbane sophisticate would make of his tale displaced to the rugged Cornish coastline and paired with a powerfully elemental original score from composer and co-lyricist Darren Clark, in conjunction with the protean Jethro Compton who wears multiple hats as director, designer, and co-producer – alongside penning the book and co-authoring the lyrics. Phew!

In other hands, one might question the absence of an outside eye to help shape material toward which creators can feel so intimately connected that they lose the bigger picture. Not here. The actor-musician cast makes frequent mention in song that “it’s all just a matter of time,” and you feel that the years spent marinating a parable of sorts have let its poignancy land with redoubled force. I watched the closing sequence through a mist of tears accompanying pathos at once honestly earned and deeply felt.

We pick up Benjamin Button from his birth in 1918, pipe and walking stick at the ready as befits a senior citizen who will slide back in years even as the century he inhabits spins forward to encompass wars, a moon landing, and other defining moments.

But far from seeming like a staged newsreel, the show always foregrounds Benjamin against family – a mum who finds her son’s condition not quite the “miracle” she had expected and a dad (the excellent Benedict Salter) who lives to a ripe old age into triple digits that his son can only dream of.

The vagaries of timing find Benjamin enjoying his first beer at age 59 (the barmaid who serves him becomes the love of his life) and matching his wife Elowen chronologically at such time as they both turn 40. The rolling years allow his wrinkles to soften and hair to regain its natural colour, prompting onlookers to enquire about a “secret” which comes, as you might imagine, with no small amount of shame.

At heart, Benjamin craves nothing so much as normalcy – the prevailing musical theatre quest these days about people wanting simply to fit in. But few shows occupy as pungent a musical landscape as the Celtic sounds unfurled here, a fusion of shanty and folk played by a multitasking ensemble whose ease recalls the heyday of John Doyle. (Those who saw The History Boys, the Alan Bennett play from which Parker – like so many young actors – sprang, will remember his agility at the piano there.)

Sure, some may say the story arc is preordained, but then again, isn’t that the case more often than we care to admit? And it’s true that a further 15 minutes or so could be trimmed before the show travels on, which it must.

Whatever happens, all concerned would be mad not to make the open-hearted Parker crucial to its future. An admiring shoutout is due, too, to Molly Osborne in superb voice as a loving if bewildered spouse who remarks frustratedly that her husband “is like a child.” She speaks her words truthfully and achingly in a rending show that at every level couldn’t be more adult.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is at Southwark Playhouse through 1 July.

Photo credit: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Photo by Juan Coolio)

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