Mark Shenton in south London
3 July 2023
A truly sublime musical version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has just ended a run (for now) at Southwark Playhouse that I went to see four times in all; it creates great art by adding its own layers of atmosphere and warmth to its folk musical retelling of the story of a man who ages in reverse, from being born in the body of a 70-year-old, to ending his life as an infant. Meanwhile about a mile away, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, another classic story – this time by Graham Greene – is turned into a plodding, pointless musical that must compete with the memory of a legendary 1949 film version that starred Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, and Trevor Howard to strike mostly bum notes, in every sense.
Sam Underwood and Natalie Dunne.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
The show is directed by Trevor Nunn, who was responsible for three of the most famous British musicals of the 1980s, two of them by Andrew Lloyd Webber – Cats and Starlight Express – while the third is Les Misérables (co-directed with John Caird), now the longest-running musical in West End history. Nunn was also responsible for directing the 1993 premiere of Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, co-written by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, with the latter pair recently represented at the Arts Theatre by Bonnie and Clyde (music by Frank Wildhorn) and now also jointly credited for book and lyrics to The Third Man. This time the music is by George Fenton, a composer best known for his film and TV scores as well as frequent stage work, including the modestly successful musical version of Mrs Henderson Presents, seen at the Noël Coward Theatre in 2016.
So it is not as if the team here is without pedigree or polish. It is also inspiring to see Trevor Nunn – now 83 – still practising his craft, joined by Michael Oakley as co-director, with a show that aims high, but falls hard. In a busy, bustling production – with choreography and movement by Rebecca Howell – Nunn and his collaborators keep the action moving propulsively forwards. Designed and dressed by Paul Farnsworth in various shades of black and white that is atmospherically lit by Emma Chapman, it is also an engaging treat to look at. Utilizing a wide swathe of the Menier’s auditorium that has the audience wrapped around it on three sides, there’s an immersive quality to being put at the heart of the action, with piles of rubble in its divided, post-war Vienna dotted around the space.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.
But the problem lies in the dogged writing that drains the suspense and intrigue from its story, a thriller about a man trying to make sense of his best friend’s mysterious death in a road traffic accident in Vienna, and singing at his graveside, “So he is dead?/ I can’t get this out of my head.” That’s by no means the least lumpen of the lyrics that regularly mine similar levels of banality. Another example is: “At times he drove me mad, but he was the truest friend, the best I ever had.” The tunes seldom rise to the occasion, either, mainly there to provide a jaunty connective tissue of underscoring but not providing enough musical meat on the dramatic bones.
Nunn is quoted in the programme saying, “Some theatre spaces have magic and you don’t know why … at the top of that list is the Chocolate Factory.” He’s previously directed Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (in a production that subsequently transferred to both the West End and Broadway) and Fiddler on the Roof at the Menier, amongst others. But the magic has gone AWOL here, despite the best and dogged efforts of a cast that includes such veterans of British musicals as Gary Milner, a criminally underutilized Rachel Izen, Edward Baker-Duly (last seen at the Menier in Nunn’s UK premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County), and Alan Vicary, plus a reunion of the estimable Harry Morrison and Jonathan Andrew Hume (last seen together in the West End premiere of the Broadway hit Come from Away). They are led by Sam Underwood as the investigating best friend, Natalie Dunne as the dead man’s grieving girlfriend, and Simon Bailey, whose role it is a spoiler to reveal.
The show’s crushing inadequacy is cruelly exposed in the famous scene set aboard a Ferris wheel looking over the city; as the two actors climb aboard a juddering platform that is then elevated a few feet into the air, all tension and jeopardy are jettisoned. The show remains stubbornly earthbound throughout.