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Curtains review at Rose Theatre, London – ‘sharply observed dark comedy’

The cast of Curtains at Rose Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan The cast of Curtains at Rose Theatre, London. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Stephen Bill’s dark comedy about how a family copes with reality of assisted suicide premiered in 1987 in Hampstead. Since then, the subjects of ageing, dementia and end-of-life care have been explored on stage frequently, as more people are forced to address these issues in their own lives.

In Curtains, the celebration of Ida’s 84th birthday is etched with awkwardness, uncertainty and pain. Her family gather to jolly things up with a party, but events turn sour when Ida’s estranged youngest daughter turns up after a 25 year absence.

The comedy often borders on the cruel. Written in an age before disability activism had raised people’s awareness, Ida and her well-meaning family make easy targets and director Lindsay Posner’s astute production is well aware of this. The easy laughs in the first scene are used as a counterpoint to the harrowing reality of the second, where Katherine finally helps her mother’s pain stop for good.

An accomplished cast negotiate the emotional shorthand that underscores Bill’s writing. They capably convey the odd mix of affection and passive aggression that underpins the family’s interactions. Wendy Nottingham, as daughter Margaret, and Caroline Catz, as the prodigal Susan, bicker and accuse but, beneath this, there is a barely suppressed jealousy of what the other one has achieved. Saskia Reeves as Katherine is quiet and painstakingly understated, shading the role with different levels of fear and desperation.

There are laughs in the aftermath too, notably supplied by Leo Bill (Stephen’s son) as the incredulous Michael, who tries to piece together events long after everybody else has twigged. But Posner also keeps a tight rein on the reality of the situation as the family come to terms with their guilt and loss.

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Sharply observed revival of Stephen Bill’s dark mix of comedy and drama