Its title gesturing cheekily both to the issue of death that’s at its centre, and to the domesticity that constitutes its context, Stephen Bill’s 1987 play Curtains takes a well-worn dramatic situation – a family gathering to celebrate a birthday – in order to explore mortality and the still-controversial issue of the right to die. The birthday girl here is Ida, a pain-wracked and wheelchair-bound 86-year-old whose family – daughters Katherine and Margaret, their spouses Geoffrey and Douglas, and Katherine and Geoffrey’s son Michael - seem almost maniacally determined for her to have a jolly good time. Naturally, the day springs some surprises, not least the return to the fold of the youngest daughter, Susan, after a 25-year absence, and the fulfillment of Ida’s own long-held birthday wish.
Lindsay Posner’s bright revival for Kingston Rose, with its excellent cosy/shabby living room set by Peter McIntosh (peeling wallpaper, trifle on the table, sunlight through a stained glass window), makes the production itself a mini family get-together by casting the playwright’s son Leo Bill as Michael, the 20-something grandson who, along with the practical neighbour Mrs. Jackson (fine Marjorie Yates) has been Ida’s principal carer. Bill, brilliant in everything from The Glass Menagerie to The School for Scandal to The Silence of the Sea, manages to make something distinctive and interesting of what could be a weak role, relishing Michael’s love of a bad joke and cake-scoffing, while hinting at the insecurities and anger beneath.
Indeed, Posner’s production opens altogether superbly, with some funny, painful and well-observed interactions. A devastatingly good Sandra Voe conveys, with a minimum of dialogue, Ida’s frustration, anger and sheer weariness, as the reluctant birthday celebrant endures her family’s strained, well-meaning attempts at joviality. Despite roving accents, Saskia Reeves, Wendy Nottingham and Caroline Catz make a good, strongly contrasting sibling trio. (The play can be seen as another Three Sisters variant, of sorts.)
If the second half is less successful, it’s down to the play’s recourse to a too-strident debate on the central issues, one that feels rigged. An element of harangue creeps into the approach, as the playwright's intentions become too obvious. Tim Dutton brings some sharp, wry humour to his performance as Douglas but the character is too transparently the play’s mouthpiece, and without effective opposition, the drama's interest wanes.
Still, even if this Alan Ayckbourn-meets-Amour evening doesn’t quite make good on its initial promise, it remains worthwhile for some potent moments, such as the screwy everyday Englishness of Reeves’s nervy Katherine confessing: “I had a breakdown … I don’t think anyone knew about it.”
Curtains is booking until 17 March. Further information here.