From the creators of Chicago and Cabaret, Curtains marks John Kander and Fred Ebb’s third musical with a one-word title that starts with the letter ‘C’ – and also the third jewel in a storied career that has graced us with some of the best musical theatre in history. Curtains features a starry, multi-talented cast, an enthralling mystery and simply some of the best theatre I have had the pleasure of watching in quite some time.
Originating in the US with David Hyde Pierce in the lead, this version is directed by Paul Foster, and written by Rupert Holmes, based on the original concept/book by Peter Stone. Drawing on the fourth wall-breaking, metatextual mischief of Kiss Me, Kate and The Producers, Curtains is set in late 1950s Boston and centres on the beleaguered cast and crew of the Broadway-bound Robbin’ Hood of the Old West (basically Robin Hood meets Oklahoma, a hilariously bizarre mix). When their lustre-lacking leading lady is murdered onstage on opening night, it’s up to detective Frank Cioffi (Jason Manford) to root out the true culprit – that is, if he’s not too busy turning his dreams of theatrical stardom into a reality.
Though the mystery keeps you guessing right up until the end, it’s a show that’s more ‘musical’ than ‘whodunnit’, but that’s no bad thing when you have an ensemble as tremendously gifted as this one. The sheer power of the assembled cast is on full display in thrilling numbers like the captivatingly extravagant ‘In the Same Boat’, the chillingly operatic ‘The Woman’s Dead’, and the hilariously effervescent ‘He/She/They Did It’ (in which the company’s collective paranoia imagines each character to be the culprit in turn). Every single person is a triple threat and a triple delight, whether it’s gloriously hamming up their pleas of innocence or pizzazz-ing the hell out of a showstopping number. But it’s Jason Manford’s leading performance that anchors the show, and further proves his West End mettle after lauded turns in Guys and Dolls, The Producers and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
‘It’s curtains for you, pal!’ is something that Cioffi might be used to saying in his day job, but it also hints at his secret desire to become one of the ‘Show People’ who appear to be the prime suspects. His wish to waive the workaday in exchange for a life in the arts might remind you of one Leopold Bloom (a role Manford has played in the past) – but he’s far from The Producers’ mousy neurotic. Manford brings a Jimmy Stewart-esque everyman quality to this role and continues to impress as an all-round performer, with his characteristic comic timing, killer vocals and some terrific moves – even though the cast also boasts Strictly Come Dancing champ Ore Oduba, it’s Manford who gets the showpiece dance sequence!
As songwriter Aaron Fox, Oduba is a revelation here, imbuing his character with classic elegance and Clark Gable charm. We already knew from his 2014 Strictly win that he could dance, but I was surprised and delighted to find out how wonderfully he could sing too! It’s a shame that (other than as part of the chorus line) he doesn’t get a showcase dance scene – but he melds excellently with the ensemble, and his songs (including the melancholy ‘I Miss the Music’) are some of the loveliest in the show. His chemistry with Carley Stenson’s Georgia Hendricks (Fox’s songwriting partner/wife) is fantastic, and Stenson is superb in the role – having already earned her West End stripes in a multitude of hits including Legally Blonde, Les Miserables, Shrek and Spamalot, Stenson rocks some of the show’s most exciting numbers, especially act one closer ‘Thataway!’
If that’s not already enough, there are also masterful turns by the brilliant Leah Barbara West as rising ingénue Niki Harris (who, on the strength of this performance, is surely destined for the role of Christine Daaé in the not-too-distant future), and Samuel Holmes as hilariously haughty director Christopher Belling, who lays claim to some of the finest sarcasm this side of Dr Perry Cox. But it’s Rebecca Lock as Carmen Bernstein, the delectably brusque producer of Robbin’ Hood, who truly steals the show every time she’s onstage. Lock is a powerhouse in the role, breathtakingly charismatic and possessing the timeless quality and sheer presence of theatre greats like Dolores Gray and Ethel Merman, especially in her magnificent solo number ‘It’s a Business’.
This whole production is a creative marvel, gorgeously crafted from top to bottom. David Woodhead’s lavish sets are a spectacle in themselves, none more breath-taking than a striking evocation of the theatre rafters that you simply have to experience for yourself. The vibrant orchestra is incredible; a beautiful reminder that there is nothing quite like live music. Gabriella Slade’s costumes are utterly magnificent (the sheer amount of material in the ‘Kansasland’ dresses deserves an award – the way they move!), and Alistair David’s thrilling, innovative choreography evokes the joyous, pin-point precision of classic movie musicals – Frank/Niki’s love duet (‘A Tough Act to Follow’) on the stairs is pure Singin’ in the Rain, and the ‘Kansasland’ sequence is Seven Brides for Seven Brothers perfection; I, personally, can give no higher praise. It hasn’t aged well in some aspects – there’s a dance/song sequence featuring a Native American character that feels inappropriate (especially as she is portrayed by a white actress), and Bambi (Emma Caffrey) is kind of over-sexualised for laughs, so the script could do with a little updating in those respects.
It’s rare to see such a thoroughly brilliant and beautifully devised show of this calibre outside of Broadway or the West End, but Curtains ticks all the boxes. It’s a self-aware love letter to musical theatre that ribs the genre for its tropes and celebrates it for its virtues. Ultimately, the show isn’t interested in what the critics think – it views them in much the same way as M. Night Shyamalan circa Lady in the Water, but when they’re as deliciously snobby as resident killjoy Daryl Grady (Adam Rhys-Charles), who can blame them? – because what it truly cares about is entertaining its audience. With a classic feel and a show-stopping quality in every scene and song, it’s clear the curtain won’t be dropping on this superlative production for a very long time indeed.