This article was originally published in CUB Magazine for their Summer 2016 printed edition.
The V&A’s usual soundtrack is silence filled with the ebb and flow of a hubbub of visitors. From the third floor, however, comes the distinct sound of toe-tapping and finger snaps from the A Chorus Line soundtrack. I weave my way through the corridors of the museum, the music as my guide, and find myself in what can only be described as theatrical heaven.
The ‘Curtain Up’ exhibition has been curated to celebrate forty years of the Olivier Awards, the highlight of the British theatre calendar and a real force in determining where audiences seat themselves within London. It includes artefacts from much-loved productions from both the West End and Broadway of years gone by such as Chicago, Les Miserables, and Matilda. However, rather than being just another exhibition in the V&A, ‘Curtain Up’ succeeded in presenting itself much like its subject: in essence, the exhibition about theatre was itself a theatrical event.
The main way in which the exhibition achieves this aura is through its attention to displaying both the on- and off-stage, which gives spectators a real taste of quite what goes into the making of their evening’s entertainment. For example, the first room centres around a small stage on which the original War Horse is placed, as well as costumes from The Lion King and Swan Lake. It’s absolutely breath-taking to see these items up close, to really see the details so carefully woven or put into them which are missed when sat far back in the dress circle. It gives a new appreciation for how much effort and thought is put into something somebody wears. Michael Crawford’s mask from The Phantom of the Opera was also an item which was garnering a lot of attention, particularly as it is the first item seen when entering the exhibition.
Set models and photos from An Inspector Calls and Arcadia give set enthusiasts a chance to see how sets are translated from concept to the stage, and rare annotated scripts are also included for an extra glance at how rehearsals are run. As the exhibition is commemorating the awards season, there are Olivier award trophies to look at as well as information about how awards are run and their different categories, as well as fun facts about recipients of awards, such as that nineteen actors have won both an Olivier and Tony for the same role in the same production in both countries.
Throughout the exhibition itself are pieces of information about the theatre medium, such as comparing audience rates of the West End and Broadway, as well as the economic impact the theatre has on a city
What I must applaud the curators for is their design of the exhibition, which really inhabits its subject matter. The first thing seen when stepping into the room is a sign for Shaftesbury Avenue (the home of London’s ‘theatreland’), with programmes and playbills (surprisingly free on Broadway compared to the small fee here in London) hanging in the air around it. The floor maps out the locations of significant theatres in both cities, complemented by wall art of Broadway. A red curtain with ‘Curtain Up’ projected in yellow lighting gives the feeling that you are not just a spectator, but a performer within this exhibition.
This is something which I love about theatre – how involved it can make us feel – and ‘Curtain Up’ really plays on this theme, with theatrical lights used throughout to light the rooms, and stepping into the ‘behind the scenes’ section there is a soundscape of technical managers counting down until show time. A mirror and ballet barre with gold top hats hanging above mimics the set for A Chrous Line, a beautiful design touch to the area. There a few opportunities to interact with the exhibition, becoming a performer within the space, such as being able to man a small lighting rig, or play around with sound on a sound-desk from Hairspray. The final room, my personal favourite, is a smaller recreation of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time set, complete with strobe lighting and screens, making you feel as if you really are Christopher.
Overall, though a much smaller exhibition than I expected, it is a theatrical cavern of delights for the theatre enthusiast, and the amount of visitors it has gathered sums up just how important and exciting theatre is to us as humans. It will leave you with a big grin on your face and the urge to dance your way out of the museum.