Review: THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

IN BRIEF Fitzgerald’s regression story given sincere and intriguing folk interpretation by musically talented cast, but runs too long.

The story of the man who is born old and lives backwards, dying a baby has been told several times before, by different authors, but Fitzgerald’s has seen the most light of day. Taking the barest skeleton of the story, this production uproots the tale from its Baltimore setting and reimagines it as a kind of West Country folk tale, with Celtic-inspired music, which works pretty well albeit rather over- “atmosphere”-d for my taste (the dry ice sticks in your throat for hours!).

We enter to fog on an atmospherically lit harbourside. A decked platform serves as the performance space, with a piano and drum kit at the rear. The cast of five performers are all good singers as well as skilled musicians whose talents suit the string-emphasised score by Darren Clark.

The music has variety of tone – by turns rousing, lilting and passionate – generally very pleasing to the ear, but for me the numbers all started to blend into each other, and for me there were no themes I took away once out of the auditorium. I remembered to write down a note about the lovely song Time, which like others in the score, is punctuated and fractured by dialogue which was disappointing as it reduced the enjoyment of the undoubted skill of the songwriter.

Schonlatern’s deceptively simple staging (and lighting design) is thoughtful and inventive, the traps in the stage also used to clever ends. Puppetry was simple but reasonably effective, but I liked the idea of the puppets being made from discarded items which could have washed up on the coastline.

The first act is slowly paced, and goes on for at least 15 minutes too long; the second half, being shorter, is more effective in every way, with the death of the wife being undoubtedly a very moving piece of theatre, although the actual end of the show rather petered out for me.

The book is generally leisurely-paced, however the way that the narrative keeps hammering home tiny facts and micro-details about time and events for me eventually became annoying and ended up turning me off. To compare to another recent show, AMELIE used this narrative device also, but they just spotted it through the show, whereas this piece over-labours the points and becomes over-stylised.

It’s All Just A Matter of Time, as the cast (seemingly endlessly) hammer home to us. For me, the time went a little too slowly, but I was glad to have seem this imaginative reworking of a story made better by its new soil, given life by a dedicated cast, and an interesting and attractive score in a production invested with a lot of thought and care.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON runs at Southwark Playhouse’s Little Space until June 8th. Information and tickets here


2 Replies to “Review: THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON”

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but what the movie version and apparently this play gets wrong is that the original Fitzgerald story isn’t meant to be taken seriously, lacking the sentimental streak these projects possess.

    Now that’s strictly secondhand information on my part. I went through a Fitzgerald phase when I was dating a woman who loved his novels. But many of his short stories went unpublished before his fame simply because they weren’t very good.

    It’s ironic that Fitzgerald is best known today for the mediocre movie versions of “Button” and his greatest work, “The Great Gatsby”. A truly great writer whose style really can’t be replicated on screen or stage.

    1. Hi Kevin and thanks for your comment. I very much agree that Fitzgerald is always best on the page, having wallowed in Gatsby in my teens. Your points are very interesting, and as someone once said about the Marx Brothers, their worst was sometimes better than other people’s best. The show really takes only the bare bones of the story and as such it has been refashioned into something very workable, the folkloric trappings lending it a mystical quality which works on stage, but in my own opinion has little to do with the original work. I did wonder about the use of Fitzgerald’s name above the title, but then I am not connected with the production. Good to hear your views, anyway- thank you!

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