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Curtain Up – Celebrating 40 Years of Theatre

August 18, 2016

Curtain Up is a fabulous, lively exhibition free that is easily missed on the V&A’s summer schedule, and unlikely to be stumbled across by accident, so if you’ve ever enjoyed a theatre show, love costumes or tiny things, I’m here to suggest that you seek it out and go and see it. The exhibition is a celebration of London and New York’s Theatrelands, and aspects of different popular productions over the years from each city are highlighted. Script-writing, production, direction, design (lighting, sound, set, and costume), music, choreography and the evolution of technology are all considered with costumes, designs, models, photographs, archival production material, film and awards, many of which are on display for the first time. 

Curtain Up: Celebrating 40 Years of Theatre in London and New York

Dynamic set design

Located on the the third floor in the rather tucked away theatre and Performance department, Curtain Up draws you in from the start, with spotlights and a musical sound track. It sort of makes you excited, as if you’re about to see a performance, or as if you somehow walked in on one mid swing without being told off.


It helps that you enter Curtain Up by walking past the looming costume from Phantom of the Opera, complete with leering papier mache mask and the space then opens out into wonderful things, a dynamic set design with flying programs suspended from the ceiling and Joey, the full sized horse puppet from War Horse is coming towards you, ripping up the floorboards with his hooves.


I have been lucky enough to see Joey close up in action when he and his handlers (actually puppeteers) cantered him along the Southbank one fine day, presumably in a promotion for the play. Despite the fact that the horse is made from painted rattan cane and what looks like nylon tights material, with two men clearly visible inside and a third in costume moving his head, Joey looks incredibly and spookily realistic when trotting along the riverbank while sunny day crowds jump back nervously as he swings his head towards them.

War Horse’s set design

Later on in the Curtain Up exhibition is War Horse’s set design, a tiny wire Joey standing on the stage while a projection plays behind him on a screen that resembles a torn strip of paper – production designer Rae Smith created a hand drawn animation which progresses alongside the action, from idyllic rural fields to the battlefield of war. It is mesmerising in miniature and must be absolutely spell binding full size in performance. Also for the lovers of tiny things are the several other sets including the one from Matilda the Musical, Carousel (1994) and Sunday in the Park with George (1983).


For lovers of bright lights there is a full sized sound mixing desk, with the chance to alter the various sound levels for a show and explore how it works. I expect the vast majority of people won’t subject it to the scientific analysis it deserves but won’t be able to resist playing with the lit up banks of sliders!

Close-up Costumes

Phantom of the Opera

It is really a joy to see in Curtain Up costumes from Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, The Producers, The Audience, Swan Lake and other productions up close. Some are behind glass, but others you can peer at from millimetres away, and clearly see the details. As usual with costumes they are a mixture of the beautiful and finely worked, and the not so delicately detailed, designed to be seen from far away.


There are also some that are immaculate, like the beautifully shredded chiffon pantaloons of the male swan for Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, which I can’t believe any ballet dancer has ever seated in, and the less immaculate, like Helen Mirren’s Queen costume for The Audience, which is somewhat shredded in a different way, through many performances. The costumes in Curtain Up for The Lion King are especially impressive – the technical aspects of designing something that looks so large and powerful yet is flexible, balanced and light enough for performers to move in must be quite a challenge. Fans of ballet may find themselves a little faint confronted by a tunic worn by Rudolf Nureyev in Romeo and Juliet.

Fascinating drawings

Accompanying the costumes are lots of costume design sketches which are not just blank fashion-style drawings of a characterless model, but fully show the characteristics of each character. Blotted ink drawings for The Visit show Kathryn Hunter as Clara Zachanassian, “the richest woman in the world” bent over and peering meanly through cat eye sunglasses, scarlet mouth a thin line. Other characters in Curtain Up seem proud and haughty, some more innocent. It is also interesting to see the “costume bibles” for a production showing fabric swatches, photos of the actors in costumes, and holding measurements and other essential information for the show’s costumes.

There are also lots of informative videos scattered around.

Curtain Up – An immersive experience

Show songs are playing throughout Curtain Up and slightly startlingly, back stage instructions are clearly relayed across the space, making me feel that I really had to get back to work. Right at the end you travel through a kid of immersive strobe tunnel. The audio visual quality is very high throughout, as are the layout and overall curation which is by by RFK Architects and Tom Piper, assisted by a team of curators.

Inner workings of theatre.

The Curtain Up exhibition as a whole does a rather wonderful thing, which is to make you eager to visit each show that is described with such verve. Credit must also go who whoever wrote the information panels: someone out there loves musicals and theatre and wants you to love it too.


I think this immersive and interactive Curtain Up exhibition would be very good for children – it reminds me of visiting Bradford’s National Museum of the Moving Image (now the National Media Museum) as a child and being absolutely agog at the inner workings of telly in some carefully constructed exhibits, but in this case it’s the inner workings of theatre.  The size isn’t too big for kids either, and if they want to explore further the rest of the Theatre and Performance department is next door. At the same time it doesn’t patronise adults and is exciting and informative for all ages.

Curtain Up is at the V & A Museum, until 31st Aug 2016



John Owen Jones (The Phantom) as Red Death in ‘Masquerade’. Photography by Catherine Ashmore© Cameron Mackintosh Ltd & Really Useful Theatre Co.

Costume design, The Phantom of the Opera, 1986 showing The Phantom in the Masquerade, Act II scene I. With the permission of the Maria Bjornson Archive

War Horse at the New London Theatre Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Installation view of Curtain Up Celebrating 40 Years of Theatre in London and New York, at the V&A 9 Feb – 31 August 2016 Image © V & A Museum.

Installation view of Curtain Up Celebrating 40 Years of Theatre in London and New York, at the V&A 9 Feb – 31 August 2016 Image © V & A Museum.

Installation view of Curtain Up Celebrating 40 Years of Theatre in London and New York, at the V&A 9 Feb – 31 August 2016 Image © V & A Museum.