Curtains – The Alexandra, Birmingham

Book: Rupert Holmes

Music: John Kander

Lyrics: Fred Ebb

Director: Paul Foster

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

It’s 1959 Boston and the opening night of the musical Robbin’ Hood! – the English folk tale transplanted to the American West – prior to a mooted Broadway transfer. And it’s a disaster – principally because the female lead, diva Jessica Cranshaw, puts in a truly stinking performance. Then somehow she is murdered during the bows on a stage full of cast members and in front of the audience. Who better to investigate than Lieutenant Frank Cioffi of the Boston PD, a successful homicide investigator and musical theatre fan?

More deaths follow and it becomes clear that Robbin’ Hood! is a show that never should have happened. The cast reluctantly pulls together and Cioffi, an accomplished amateur performer himself, also helps the company improve the show prior to its relaunch – and re-review by the poisonous Chicago Globe critic.

Curtains is a send-up of the whole murder mystery genre. As a murder mystery, it just about works with twists and red herrings, though the cast is large making it difficult to keep track of some of the minor characters and some of the characters are distinctly stereotypical and two dimensional. But that hardly matters, there’s plenty of good songs and the jokes and fizzing one-liners help carry us forward. At the centre is Jason Manford as the self-effacing Cioffi, reminding one of a better groomed Columbo. He brings out Cioffi’s wonder at being transplanted into a world he loves while still keeping his focus on solving the case. He also has a decent singing voice.

Leah West brings us Niki Harris, ostensibly Cranshaw’s understudy, and love interest for Cioffi. She has a fine singing voice and good talent for comedy, with some sweet exchanges with Cioffi. Robbin’ Hood!’s music and lyrics come from warring ex-husband-and-wife songwriting team, Georgia Hendricks (Carley Stenson) and Aaron Fox (Andy Coxon). Stenson’s Hendricks inexplicably finds herself the replacement for Cranshaw, leaving Fox to try to rework the songs alone. Stenson is supremely talented, singing from the heart while Coxon makes a good fist of a man set adrift and struggling to find his way alone. Offering fine support are Samuel Holmes as the flamboyant English director, Rebecca Lock and Mark Sangster as the producers and Martin Callaghan as financier Oscar Shapiro, while Nia Jermin is delightfully goofy in the first few minutes as Cranshaw, helping to set the tone for the rest of the production.

Kander and Ebb have provided us with some cracking songs in a variety of genres, both for Curtains and also for Robbin’ Hood! They’re supported by lively choreography from Alistair David and snappy direction from Paul Foster. David Woodhead’s set recreates the feel of being backstage though transitions between scenes could sometimes be smoother.

Overall, Curtains may not be the finest musical ever, but it is a lively and entertaining evening out. It doesn’t take itself too seriously – meet it on its own terms and you’ll go away smiling.

Runs until 9 November 2019 and on Tour Image: Richard Davenport

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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