Although it’s no great feat to make a version of Benjamin Button better than the disturbingly CGI-dependent 2008 film, it is pretty impressive to make one like this. Adapted from F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who grows up backwards and relocated to Cornwall, there’s something sweet, sensitive and childlike about it.
The many shanty-inspired folk songs by Darren Clark are full of gorgeous vocal harmonies, performed by a stunning actor-muso cast. These extraordinary multi-instrumentalists take to fiddles, accordions and drums like luggers to water.
In writer/director Jethro Compton’s evocation of landscape and culture, Cornwall also becomes a character – conjured out of a wooden set made of fishing tackle. Trapdoors and judicious use of haze turn the slatted platform into an attic, a train station and a cliff top.
Alongside the flashes of pure brilliance are bits where it slides into the naff. There’s an irritating faux-mythic quality to the text and the lyrics don’t match the quality of the music. There are also puppets made of lobster pots and plastic containers that are creepy as hell.
It’s a thrill to see a new British musical as accomplished as this. In those chilling moments when the cast is holding tense, five-part harmonies, rather than feeling like a new musical, it sounds timeless.