If you say the name F Scott Fitzgerald to just about anyone, ardent fan or casual reader, the first thing that will inevitably come to mind is The Great Gatsby, the novel that has become synonymous with the American Jazz Age.
In fact, much of Fitzgerald’s work is as evocative of that period of US history as it is of any individual character or event.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that one of his most quietly moving stories takes a completely different view of time, almost rejecting it all together.
Not located in one historic moment, and not following events in the usual chronological fashion, the short story The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button rather shows a life lived backwards, a man born in old age who progressively gets younger until he becomes a baby and then ceases to exist.
In staging the tale as a musical, Jethro Compton has seized the opportunity to move the story out of the place and time of its original setting and relocate it to the Cornish coast, with Benjamin’s life unfolding in reverse from the turn of the century to the 1980s.
Surely no other Fitzgerald tale would survive this kind of relocation – imagine Gatsby throwing a sea shanty-infused party in mid-20th century Cornwall – but Benjamin Button is about a man almost permanently out of time so Compton’s approach works a treat.
The multi-instrumentalist cast of five, playing on a coastal set of planks, rope and smoke, bring Benjamin’s story to life as a piece of theatrical storytelling, swapping roles as ages change, directly addressing the audience, and animating the story with a string of memorable songs.
The piece, and the story on which it is based, does require a single flight of fantasy at the outset – that a woman could give birth to an old man – and Compton’s answer is a near-life sized puppet made of flotsam and jetsam washed up from the sea.
If the sea inspires the music and the whole environment for his telling of the story it is fitting that, in some sense, Benjamin himself emerges from – and will ultimately return to – the sea.
There is one moment in Benjamin’s anachronistic tale, half-way between his arrival and his departure and almost like a broken watch that is right once in twelve hours, when everything seems to click into place.
For one moment Benjamin finds himself exactly the same age as the woman he marries, as if suggesting that for all of us, however we live, there will be a moment or a connection that defines everything else, and to and from which everything else flows.
That sense that there are anchors in time seems to lie at the heart of the story and at the heart of this production.
One of the most memorable songs – A Matter Of Time, performed once in each act with different lyrics – takes a single apparently innocuous event like someone oversleeping and tracks the ripples through time and space that it causes and the unseen effects that it leads to.
There’s a natural joy in the unfolding logic that can’t fail to make you look at single moments in your own day and wonder where they might lead and who they might affect.
It is refreshing to see such an accomplished new British musical thriving in London. The industry is always looking for the next big show to rival the big US imports that often dominate the West End, and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button could be just that.
It could easily be up-scaled for a West End stage or made portable for a tour, so hopefully this run at Southwark will not be the last we see of Benjamin.
by James Haddrell, Artistic & Executive Director, Greenwich Theatre
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Southwark Playhouse, until 8 June 2019