Intriguing and powerful, the Rose Theatre's production of Curtains still brings smiles and laughter – despite the dark subject matter, writes Muddy theatre buff John Clarke.
A family at war wouldn’t necessarily seem a subject ripe for comedy. Yet Stephen Bill’s Curtains manages to raise smiles and laughter (some of it uncomfortable, it has to be admitted) from a play that centres on old age, death and the pressures that can tear a home apart.
First staged in 1987, when it won a play of the year award, it has been revived by former Royal Court Theatre director Lindsay Posner in an intriguing and powerful production at the Rose that makes full use of its open stage to invite you in to the now faded and rundown home of pensioner Ida as she celebrates her 86th birthday.
Although it’s obvious that there’s not much to celebrate. Wheelchair-bound Ida (played with a touching resilience by Sandra Voe) is suffering from Alzheimer’s and can barely recognise her daughters, the twitchy and nervy Katherine (Saskia Reeves) or the snobbish and put upon Margaret (Wendy Nottingham). Only the sensible matter-of-fact neighbour Mrs Jackson (Marjorie Yates) can get through, while Ida’s grandson Michael (Leo Bill), who lodges at the house, hides his care and devotion under a barrage of jokes and smart one-liners.
The festivities, such as they are, are interrupted by the appearance of a third sister, Susan (Caroline Catz), the black sheep of the family, who return ignites long-held rivalries with Katherine and Margaret, not helped by Susan’s attraction to Margaret’s ex-RAF husband Douglas (Tim Dutton).
The whole play is then turned on its head by a single, monstrous act, the ramifications of which reverberate through the rest of this tragicomic drama. Katherine, who seems unable to stand still or sit for a moment, is transformed into an unlikely saviour, taking charge at one moment, wracked by guilt in another, all played with an arresting and almost maniacal fervour by Reeves.
But it’s her husband Geoffrey, the solid respectable parish councillor portrayed with superb panache by Jonathan Coy who dominates he stage as the man for whom all of life’s certainties have suddenly been shattered.
While tight and structured in the first half, the play does begin to lose some momentum as it develops. Ideas and principles are introduced and discussed at length without them moving the action on in any foreseeable way.
Only at the end are we left with the grim feeling, leavened by the inherent irony that runs through the play, that life goes on, whatever.
It’s not the most light-hearted way to spend an evening, but it’s a play that will leave you thinking and challenges the way we feel about age, infirmity and family ties.
Review by John Clarke