F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, was previously adapted into a feature-length film starring Brad Pitt in 2008, and then in 2019 Jethro Compton and Darren Clark created a musical, which premiered at Southwark Playhouse. Four years on, the show is once again running at Southwark Playhouse, but this time in their bigger, brand-new venue in Elephant & Castle.

Credit: Juan Coolio

Swapping the usual setting of the USA, seen in both the book and the film, for Cornwall, Compton’s production takes place in a fishing village at the end of World War I. The set (also designed by Compton) is made of wood, with fishing nets and buoys placed around the stage. The attention to detail is excellent, with moss appearing on the floorboards of the stage. The costume design by Anna Kelsey perfectly emulates the sea and shore, utilising colours of the English sea and coastal paths in the designs. But it’s Clark’s folk score which truly transports you to the coastal setting. 

The score is performed by an ensemble of actor-musicians, who play a variety of instruments including strings, flute, accordion, and brass. They also make some of the sound effects throughout the show, which is incredibly effective at building atmosphere. The score is strongest with the cast in unison, demonstrating pitch-perfect harmonies, they create an enchanting sound which is joyful to listen to. The harmonies in ‘A Little Life’ are a particular stand-out moment within the show. There are quite a few reprises, but this works to drive the story instead of feeling repetitive at any point. This is one of the most mesmerisingly beautiful scores I’ve heard in a new musical for a long time. 

Jamie Parker is remarkable in the role of Benjamin Button, he brings a physicality to his performance, hunching himself over when he is supposed to be a bumbling old man, and later his stiff posture and mannerisms make his anxiety palpable. There were a couple of accent slips, his Cornish accent was broader in some scenes compared to others, although this is a minor gripe that I’m sure will be ironed out as the run continues. Otherwise, Parker gives a performance powered with emotion, connecting with the audience through a couple of asides, and by the show’s climax – a tear rolled down my cheek.

Credit: Juan Coolio

Molly Osbourne as Elowen Keene provides some stunning vocals and is intensely charismatic, the chemistry between Parker and Keene is electric, and adds credibility to their relationship – this pairing is a joy to watch. 

The show is slow to get going, there is quite a long period in the beginning before we actually see Benjamin – however, the show seems to find its groove by the end of Act 1 – and hits great momentum. Towards the end of Act 2 the pacing again becomes slightly sluggish, but this could be due to the long runtime; there is limited use of props and minimal staging changes which can also make scenes seem much longer.

Credit: Juan Coolio

I do feel that despite how great Parker’s performance is, having multiple people play Benjamin would better aid the storytelling; as this would give more of a visual representation of him ageing in reverse. With just one actor playing the character and minimal changes in his appearance throughout, it feels similar to Jamie playing Lloyd’s Cyrano, how the audience has to imagine Cyrano’s nose – here we are required to imagine his de-ageing. 

There are some tweaks to be made, with such a long run time, a few scenes could be cut out, as there are some unnecessary parts, which do not progress the plot. But this is a truly unique show – it’s incredibly special and I expect there is much future life for it. This is the best actor-musician show I have ever seen, the score is sublime and expertly incorporated – I need a cast recording now! The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the most enchantingly beautiful show you’ll see this year.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is on at Southwark Playhouse Elephant until the 1st of July – tickets and info here!

Find more Off West End review here!

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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