F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about a man who ages backwards is brought to the theatre with commendably little fuss. Nothing is unstageable, but the mind-boggling idea here is handled lightly by relying on the great skill of Jamie Parker who takes the title role. And the adaptation has another surprise – the story is now a musical.
The folk music, by Darren Clark, inspired by the Cornish setting of the story, is great. The sound is impressively large, and it isn’t too fanciful to say the sea is the inspiration: the music roars but also comforts, rages and lulls. The tunes have instant appeal and boast moments wistful and toe tapping. The songs do follow a formula that might prove repetitious on a soundtrack but works well live. As for the performances – they are very special.
The show uses a dozen actor musicians who all embrace the chance to show off a variety of characters while sounding fantastic. Such talent often impresses, but I lost count of how many times this lot changes instruments. And the choreography is ambitious too; Chi-San Howard should be proud. Everyone weaves around the stage beautifully in Jethro Compton’s assured direction, working with fluidity and confidence.
The technique of using the cast as narrators is overused, though. And there’s too much detail: telling us the date, or how much time has passed, or highlighting a “chain of events” – each is handled cleverly – but all feature too often. The show’s strong ideas end up tainted by being repeated.
As a contrast, you couldn’t get enough of Parker. Depicting Button getting younger with great skill is never overstated. It’s an emotional performance that aids the show immeasurably. And Parker is helped by his co-stars, especially the strong work from his character’s mother and wife, played by Philippa Hogg and Molly Osborne.
Hopefully it isn’t too much of a plot spoiler to reveal that Button’s mother ends up committing suicide – it’s important to know that the show has dark moments. It could be a problem for Compton’s book that the conclusion is a downer. Button has his unhappy end pointed out to him from the start – defying his father is part of the point. Efforts to show this “little life” as a kind of triumph don’t quite convince, the show’s energy runs down. After such strong work, with so much to recommend it, it is odd to leave the theatre deflated. But the piece is undoubtedly moving and the work here top notch.
Until 1 July 2023
Photo by Juan Coolio