Curtain Up!

Lyndhurst Drama & Music Society  The Vernon Theatre, Lyndhurst  Darren Funnell 25 April 2024

Reliably informed that Liza Minelli was not, as promised, going to appear at the Vernon Theatre in Lyndhurst Drama and Musical Society’s version of ‘Curtain Up!’ by Peter Quilter, it was something of a scene-stealing surprise when she did. I didn’t need a refund. But, oh my!

Often this play is thought of as a rip-roaring farcical comedy set in a community theatre. Reviews tend to highlight the belly laughs. To my surprise, away from the amusing mishaps and teddy bear suits – Lyndhurst are certainly anthropomorphic enthusiasts! – this is a play about five women given a fifth share in a run-down theatre who decide, rather than sell up, to bring the theatre back to life. They work together towards a common artistic goal to process their varied reaction to grief. Not only does this show the resilience and camaraderie that unites members of the theatre community, but also a cathartic determination to look back in joy, heal old wounds, and find a way forward by achieving the impossible in a poignant yet comic way.

And that is where Jenny Green has played her ace card. The temptation here is to dial it up, so Jenny goes the other way.  Her character framing and throughline is more realistic, human and nuanced. Of course, it is funny too and has leg warmers, dance routines and spangle, but at the heart of the humour, there beats a genuine understanding and empathy for the complexities of human interaction. Often, we are placed in uncomfortable situations and do not make the obvious choice. Jenny nor the cast do in this production.

This is all wonderfully helped along by the set, particularly in Act 1. All theatrical faded glamour and old box office charm. In Act 2, it is razzle-dazzle gone big, but the characters don’t go there. And that is right. They stay true to the real story and are not tempted to dial it up too many notches. Well done to Jenny, Hannah Rogers, Rob Davis, Brain Buck, Sarah Short and all the production team.

The all-female cast is great. It is not about the Director, Producer, Stage Manager as is often the case. It is about the daughter, the ex-wife, the ex-wife’s mother, the second wife and the reliable friend. It makes for a more interesting dynamic. Yes, in being thoughtful, it might slow the play down in places, but is far more intuitive and courageous to hold that path.

So here we have enthusiastic and driven Theresa (Rebecca Harper) bouncing with energy even when disappointed with other people’s commitment to the cause. Pam (Di Buck) has balanced anger and tiredness at having to do something for her dead ex-husband whilst sharing the stage with his second wife. After all, for Pam, it is not about the cost of the tin of paint and what Di does here is more than the sum of its parts. Betty (Hilary Causey) has a wonderful way of showing deadpan support whilst having cognitive changes that are subtly performed and not played for ’big’ laughs (thankfully). She also has great timing.  Jackie (Michele Arkle) treads the line amusingly between honouring her husband and finding a way to make amends with Pam. This is all wrapped with Sharon (Gemma Wilks) the punky, no holds barred, friend with energy, emotional tics, and facial expressions which helps pivot some necessary underplaying to reach this production’s goal.

If I have two small comments it would be the final scene, once the theatre show in the play is over and the way forward has been found, could perhaps have a touch more poignancy. Give the audience a little more time to be uplifted. Also give the dance number(s) a bit more welly!

So, Lyndhurst maintains its reputation with another excellent production. It eschews whipping up a comedy frenzy and lands as a comic character piece. It is all the better for it. Well done all.

‘Curtain Up!’ at The Vernon Theatre runs from tonight to the 27th of April. Thinking about it I can’t guarantee if Liza Minnelli will turn up every night. You will kick yourself if you miss her.