REVIEW:Curtains (Orchard Theatre, Dartford)

Regular readers of our blog will know that we are mad about musicals and partial to a murder mystery. Mummy is also a particular fan of Kander and Ebb, the songwriting duo behind hit musicals Cabaret and Chicago. So she couldn’t think of anywhere better to spend a Monday night than at the opening night of a Kander and Ebb murder mystery musical about an onstage murder at the opening night of a musical. Better still, Auntie Poppins came to babysit the munchkins so that Mrs Mummy could come too.

Curtains is a hilarious love letter to both the murder mystery genre and musical theatre itself. The show opens with the closing number of Robbin’ Hood of the Old West, a new musical on a tryout in Boston before an anticipated Broadway transfer. Here we see hapless leading lady Jessica Cranshaw (Nia Jermin) fumble her way through the first night finale before taking her final bow in more ways than one. It may be curtains for Jessica, but the show must go on. Not least because the entire cast and crew are quarantined in the theatre anyway while Detective Frank Cioffi (Jason Manford) attempts to solve the murder. With lyricist Georgia Hendricks (Carley Stenson) stepping into Cranshaw’s shoes in an attempt to save the show, they have 24 hours to revise and rehearse the critically panned production before it is re-reviewed by Boston Globe critic, Daryl Grady (Adam Rhys-Charles).

The Curtains company. ©The Other Richard

It’s a brave move to write a musical about a musical flop, particularly when taking aim at critics in the process. But satirical shows within shows are what Kander and Ebb do best, and this tried and tested format works once more, with Ebb’s witty lyrics firing plenty of loving potshots at his own industry. From cast and crew to critics, (almost) nobody is free from the firing line, both metaphorically and literally. As the bodies mount up and the pool of potential suspects dwindles, can Cioffi save the day and the integrity of musical theatre?

Though the book does drag in places, this is a fantastic production which really comes to life in the musical numbers. It is performed brilliantly by an impressively large cast in which there is not a weak link. Manford is excellent as theatre-enthusiast Cioffi, who we often find expending his efforts on trying to solve the problems of the flawed musical when he should be catching the criminal. As funny as you would expect from a career comedian he is also a surprisingly strong singer and a real advert for the much maligned celebrity casting that often takes place in musical theatre.

Other stand-out performances include Stenson as lyricist-cum-leading lady Hendricks, who absolutely shines in the big song and dance numbers from the show within a show that are scattered in between the more dialogue heavy crime-solving scenes. Rebecca Lock and Emma Caffrey make a great duo as producer, Carmen Bernstein and dancer daughter, Elaine (Bambi) Bernet, their relationship an interesting twist on the stage mother paradigm seen in shows like Gypsy. Lock almost steals the show in ‘It’s a business’, which is swiftly followed by Caffrey’s shining moment in ‘Kansasland’. Both scenes boast some impressive choreography, which is another highlight of this entertaining production.

Rebecca Lock and the company of Curtains ©The Other Richard

Curtains is an absolute treat for anyone who loves musical theatre, with plenty of in-jokes for those in the business who like to laugh at themselves. Digs at critics were well received from the press section, with gags about opening night audiences also landing successfully. There’s also a fittingly touching sub-plot (and, of course, song) about the relationship between composer and lyricist. The murder mystery storyline is brilliantly entertaining, keeping the audience guessing right until the end. Mummy would tell you what happens, but she fears this would put her on the naughty critics list. And despite the joke that critics leave to catch their trains before the bows, she was very much still in her seat to catch the musical death threat against spoilers at the curtain call. So she won’t be breathing a word, for fear that it may be her last. If you want to know whodunnit, you’ll have to see it yourself.

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles and Mittens (aka 4 out of 5 of my favourite things).

Curtains is playing at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford from 25 to 30 November 2019 before continuing a UK tour.