The Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in South Kensington is one of my favourite places to visit in London. The museum is home to a huge variety of galleries full of gorgeous stuff, from furniture to fashion and sculptures to silverware. Since I enjoy going there anyway, I was excited to learn last year that the Theatre & Performance galleries were going to host a new exhibition in 2016, timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards.
Organised by the V&A Museum and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, in partnership with the Society of London Theatre, the Curtain Up exhibition is a fairly small but perfectly formed exposé of how a theatre show is brought to life. Designed by acclaimed theatre designer Tom Piper and RFK Architects, Curtain Up includes insights into the many processes behind putting on a show that will be fascinating to anyone with an interest in theatre.
There are beautiful costumes and costume design sketches, including designers’ notes and scraps of the fabrics to be used. One of my favourite costumes on display is the regal white dress and blue sash worn by Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience – I was particularly taken by the fact that it might be just about my size. (I managed to resist the temptation to tear it from the mannequin and run to the nearest loos to try it on, though.)
Exhibits reveal some intriguing behind the scenes secrets from famous shows. If you want to see annotated scripts (‘I am at an audition. I want the job.’ is hand-written across the front page of one from A Chorus Line), wonder at the fully itemised costings of a major West End show (the original 1978 production of Evita), or read a delightful note from Ian McKellen offering best wishes and advice to his understudy in Amadeus (scrawled on a napkin, no less), this is the place for you. Another of my favourite items is a letter from producer Hal Prince to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, offering some refreshingly honest opinions based on his first hearing of the Evita score…
Set design is afforded particular attention in the exhibition – perhaps unsurprisingly since sets are one of the most visual elements of theatre, creating as they do the environment in which a show’s action takes place. Curtain Up includes scale models of the set designs for several shows, including War Horse and one of my particular favourites, Matilda. The painstaking detail and intricacy packed into the latter, designed by Rob Howell, is as astonishing in miniature as it is full-size at the Cambridge in London or the Shubert in New York.
There’s also the opportunity to walk through a scaled-down reconstruction of Bunny Christie and Finn Ross’s set for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This is another of my favourite shows from recent years – for me it’s a perfect example of every element of a show coming together to create something magical, as only theatre can. The recreation here illustrates that rather nicely by also incorporating aspects of the lighting and sound from the show; the whole is well-produced enough for you to feel you’re actually on a West End (or indeed Broadway) stage, if you allow your imagination just a little leeway.
On your visit, you can get up close to Olivier and Tony Awards (although not quite within touching distance – they’re safely behind glass), play with an iPad operated sound desk, and if so-inclined, snap a selfie with an oversized Olivier or a life-sized Joey from War Horse… or even high-kick along with clips from A Chorus Line.
I chose to visit Curtain Up on a Friday evening, when the V&A has its late opening hours (until 10pm – although access to Curtain Up stops at 9.30pm). I’d definitely recommend this evening option: not only does it fit well with the circadian rhythms of a regular theatregoer, I have a feeling that it was much less busy than it will be during the day on weekends, when it may be harder to give some of the exhibits the close attention they deserve without incurring the wrath of others waiting to do the same. Whenever you choose to visit, though, make sure you do – it’s well worth the trip for any keen theatre fan!
If you’d like some suggestions for other collections to check out whilst you’re at the V&A, I expect that since you’re reading my blog you’ll probably enjoy the rest of the Theatre & Performance rooms. Other favourites of mine include the Cast Courts with their preposterously huge replicas of architectural features, and the Jewellery rooms (the endless sparkle appeals to my inner magpie). The gorgeous café and inner courtyard aren’t half bad either.
The Curtain Up exhibition – which is free to visit – is in Room 104 of the Theatre & Performance gallery of London’s V&A Museum until 31 August 2016. For more information, click here. The exhibition will then transfer to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at the Lincoln Center from 19 October 2016 to June 2017.