Curtains – A Musical Whodunnit! Grand Opera House, Belfast, November 19
Review by Conor O’Neill
Photography courtesy of Richard Davenport
How apt that as we approach the end of 2019 and the upcoming closure for refurbishment of the Grand Opera House that one of the last three productions happens to be a musical about murder within a musical.
A childhood reading hand-me-down Enid Blyton’s Famous Five novels left me with a love for trying to guess who’s the criminal. And I know many feel the same; just look at the amount of crime shows on the tele? Mix that in with West End musical theatre and heaven will surely follow.
Add to that it’s penned by Kander and Ebb – the creators of Chicago and Cabaret – and saliva is sure to be running down the chin. Winner of a Tony Award way back in 2007, surely Curtains cannot fail to amaze?
A brief synopsis runs something like this: a theatre company put on a musical with the terrible Jessica Cranshaw (Nia Jerman) as the lead who unfortunately – well not to the ears of the audience – gets murdered as the curtain falls on opening night. There’s a killer among the cast. But who? Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Jason Manford) is brought into investigate.
A little nosing around finds almost everyone would have benefitted from the closure of the show. Theatre on lock-down until the murderer is revealed. All cast and crew are under the suspicion of Cioffi, who we learn just happens to have an inkling for the boards himself.
Robbin Hood, a rather naff western take on Nottingham’s infamous anti-hero, is the basis of the tale. The show gets less than glowing reviews, especially by the Boston Globe’s theatre correspondent Daryl Grady (Adam Rhys-Charles).
Infighting soon becomes the currency as Cioffi interviews everyone from financier Oscar Shapiro (Martin Callaghan), co-producer Carmen Bernstein (Rebecca Lock) and the divinely camp director Christopher Belling (Samuel Holmes). And maybe for the first time it’s the director who gets the most cutting of one-liners, of which there are many. Even Cioffi’s love interest, Nicky Harris (tonight played by Pamela Blair) is under scrutiny.
The set is at times a tad hard to follow. We can see the back of the Grand Opera House, in front of that the Colonial theatre and again in front of that Robbin Hood’s scene changes. A musical within a musical and a stage within a theatre within a theatre is a bold move to make.
But hats off to set designer David Woodhead under the watchful eye of director Paul Foster, not a penny is spared in making the occasion as show biz as the biz can be.
Again, Gabriella Slade’s costume – and fair play to the actors and ensemble for their quickness of changes – as they routinely move from civvies to peel upon peel of brilliant period piece and then western costumes.
And the music, well it wouldn’t be a Kander and Web production without the high-end mix of big band pieces interspersed with haunting ballads that’ve become their signature. The doom of The Woman’s dead is quickly followed by the thrills and spills of Show People.
Throw in Carmen, Oscar (Martin Callighan), Johnny (Minal Patel), the ever moving, hip-gyrating and toes-a-tapping Johnny’s It’s A Business and I don’t think you could ask for any more in two-and-a-half-hours of musical theatre. Well, except for big dance scenes.
At times there’s one, two or three on stage; at others all 23 are caught up with a full band playing somehow intertwining, skipping and enveloping the stage. How this is managed is largely down to choreographer Alistair David’s drill sergeant’s authority, organisation plus a sprinkle of theatrical imagination. As mentioned before, Bobby’s move stand out among the male member’s of the cast. For the female dancing queen look no further than Emma Caffery’s dazzling Bambi, who also gets some snappy quips. But it’s her dancing that’ll leave you spellbound.
It’s for a reason I’ve left the man whose name is in lights to the end. Before tonight Jason Manford was just another one of the many panel shows names. A Manchester lad done well for himself but not really at the cutting edge of comedy. But below that self-depreciating humour lies talents I’d never expected.
With so many plots going on, Manford surprisingly spends less time on stage than his star billing suggests. But when he does come on he truly does deliver. Not only has he a fine baritone voice that can hold a note, but the comedian in him makes for comedic actiing. The program reveals he’s got previous in acting being nominated for best actor for his role in Ordinary Lies. To his portfolio he can now add West End singer and dancer. The boy can tap and swing with the more seasoned stars of this show, plus his Boston accent is perfectly acceptable.
I assumed Curtains was simply a vehicle to push his career a little further. The truth is he can and does carry the weight of a Kander and Ebb production. Not as good as their stellar shows such as Cabaret or Chicago, but certainly worth your time and hard-earned cash.
The second act ties things up nicely and there’s more reveals in the last 15 minutes than a full series of Love Island.
Curtains runs at the Grand Opera House up to and including Saturday, November 23rd with matinees on Thursday and Saturday.
To book your tickets visit http://www.goh.co.uk or call the box office on 02890 241919