PREVIEW: Curtain Up – Celebrating 40 Years of Theatre in London and New York – V&A, London

Preview by: Maryam Philpott

Few people probably remember the theatre museum in Covent Garden that closed in 2007 and even fewer will know that its collection was transferred to the main V&A Museum site in South Kensington. With a remit to showcase the history of design and in a maze of rooms, the Theatre and Performance Gallery is tucked away on the second floor and is usually the place for a quiet potter far from the bustling crowds of the other galleries. But all that is about to change as the Theatre and Performance Gallery finally gets its standing ovation with the arrival of Curtain Up: Celebrating 40 Years of Theatre in London and New York which opens on 9 February for a 6-month run before transferring to Lincoln Centre, New York in October.

2016 is the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards and this exhibition brings together materials from a variety of shows that have traversed the Atlantic to appear in both the West End and New York, winning Olivier and Tony Awards. It’s stuffed with surprising facts and figures including almost comparable attendance rates for 2015 – the West End attracted 13.5 million people, while Broadway entertained 14 million – and the knowledge that 19 individuals have won an Olivier and a Tony for the same role in the same production in both countries. Londoners, however, will be somewhat miffed to learn that ‘playbills’ in New York are free while they cost upwards of £4 here and as high as £8-10 for a major star vehicle.

For many, the theatre artefacts alone will be well worth the visit, from Michael Crawford’s original Phantom of the Opera mask, to Julia McKenzie’s Guys and Dolls garter from 1982, Helen Mirren’s queenly dress from the 2013 production of The Audience and Ruthie Hensall’s 1997 Chicago outfit to Judi Dench’s 1987 Cleopatra costume – which is very timely given the National’s recent announcement of Antony and Cleopatra in early 2018 with Ralph Fiennes and an, as yet, uncast Cleopatra. Dance productions are also featured and key pieces include furry swan trousers from Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake and Rudolf Nureyev’s jacket from his 1977 Romeo and Juliet.

The actors are only one side of the story and one of the things this show does well is give equal space to the extensive backstage work that goes into any production. Interactive elements include a small lighting rig that visitors can manipulate and a sound booth allowing you to adjust the levels on the Hairspray soundtrack, before culminating in a small recreation of the set from Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which uses projection all around you to simulate being on stage. Less showy but equally interesting items include scale model set designs for An Inspector Calls and Arcadia, as well as a note from Ian McKellan to his understudy in Amadeus recommending he ‘get their attention + curiosity going’.

Given this is a celebration of award ceremonies, there’s also a chance to learn more about the decision-making process for the Oliviers and Tonys, while seeing how the design of the trophies themselves have changed. Penelope Keith was awarded a Wedgewood vase when she won an Olivier in 1976, which is on display here, as well as more up-to-date versions of both awards and the process of creating them and their nameplates separately to avoid winner’s names being leaked.

For a museum specialising in design, V&A exhibitions have floundered in recent years, and while blockbuster shows about David Bowie and Kylie have attracted attention, curation has been weak. Then everything changed with the arrival of the spectacular Alexander McQueen show last summer that led to 24-hour openings and a clamouring for tickets that museums can usually only dream of. Consequently, it has become clear that objects are no longer sufficient on their own but must be part of a unified approach to curation that designs the gallery space to fit the material, and in Curtain Up RFK Architects and Tom Piper have created an exhibition that showcases the work of theatre professionals while also celebrating the glitz and glamour of the West End and Broadway.

As you enter, the walls and floor are covered in a stylised design of theatres and a map that shows the relative positions of all theatres both cities. Another highlight is a ballet bar and mirrors that evoke the 1975 production of A Chorus Line with original top hats lining the walkway. Video, sound, illustration, text and objects have been cleverly united in what Julian Bird, the Chief Executive of the Society of London Theatre, described as a ‘level of excellence in creating award-winning theatre’ that unites talented individuals both on and off stage. If you can navigate your way to the V&A’s Theatre and Performance Gallery this new exhibition is well worth a visit for anyone who loves the theatre.

Combining the archives of the V&A, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and supported by the Society of London Theatre, Curtain Up is part of a series of events to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards. Further educational talks and workshops will be announced shortly.

Runs Until: 31 August 2016 | Image: Jonathan Hordle

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Our Features team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The team is responsible for sourcing interviews, articles, competitions from across the country. 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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