Curtains is a piece of theatre that ticks many boxes: catchy songs, acrobatic dancing, funny dialogue, a tight plot, and colourful characters. It debuted in Broadway in 2007, and came to the UK for the first time back in 2010. Ten years on, we can safely say it’s aged well. In fact, it could even become a classic, which should be no surprise; it’s written by legendary writing team Kander and Ebb, who are responsible for Cabaret and Chicago.
Like those two shows, Curtains is a story about theatre itself – but the tone here is far more light-hearted. As it begins, the curtains open to reveal a scene in the Old West, along with a big themed number that wouldn’t be out of place in Oklahoma. However, the leading lady is clearly quite sloshed. She misses her cues, gets the musical timings all wrong, and the other performers get very exasperated very quickly. It’s similar to the popular Goes Wrong skits of TV and stage – which have also included a drunk actor ruining the show. It’s hard to make theatrical disasters look genuine, and they do it well.
The leading Lady is Jessica Cranshaw; a fading Hollywood star who, as well as being an alcoholic, can’t really sing, dance or act. She’s merely the star power, roped in to get an audience. As she takes her bow, however, she collapses. Fans of murder mysteries won’t be surprised to hear that her death is suspicious and, conveniently, the murderer must have been in the building at the time. So enters Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, played by Jason Manford, to investigate the crime. He spends the play in awe of the professionals around him, because he’s an amateur performer himself. This makes his contribution to the musical numbers narratively believable, at least.
Manford is actually a fantastic performer, which might surprise those (myself included) who only know him for his stand-up routines and panel show appearances. He’s toured the UK as Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Leo Bloom in The Producers, and Pirelli in Sweeny Todd – so those who frequent the theatre will be aware of his skills. Here, he plays Cioffi like Columbo – if Columbo could sing and dance. In dialogue, he is awkward, and has a drawl like James Stewart’s, which gives him a sweet and endearing edge. If there’s a character you don’t want to be the killer, it’s him.
The rest of the cast do a stellar performance, too, as the vicious and backbiting theatre company. Samuel Holmes is hilarious as director Christopher Belling. He’s shown off his comedy chops in the past, performing with Monty Python at their 2014 reunion gig, and touring as Lord Farquaad in Shrek. This might be his best part yet, however, as he brings Belling to life as a flamboyant and bitchy theatre diva. “We’ll all remember her in our resumes”, he says at the mock funeral held for Jessica Cranshaw. Nobody seems to grieve for her, which not only sets up a few suspects, but shows how hilariously savage the company is. There is one sweet member though, in Bambi Bernet, played subtly by Emma Caffrey. She’s an endearing young performer; bullied by her mother, and always willing to help the detective. I’m tempted to say she’s the real victim in the whole thing.
There are plenty of character traits that are slowly revealed, in a classic Agatha Christie kind of way, to keep you guessing. This isn’t original in itself, but it’s the combination of this narrative with the musical theatre setting that makes Curtains special. It’s Noises Off with, music, dance and murder. And this production does a slick job of putting it all together.
Curtains is currently touring the UK, dates can be found here: https://curtainsmusical.com/