As our ageing population continues to, well, age, Stephen Bill’s Curtains at the Rose Theatre Kingston puts euthanasia in the spotlight.
“Fourteen more years and you’ll get your telegram from the Queen”
Stephen Bill’s 1987 play Curtains feels at once a curious choice to revive and yet an appropriate play for the Rose Kingston, a theatre that often seems to be searching for its audience, or at least the right material to put in front of it. Curtains has a play-of-the-day feel to it as it seeks to deal with its big issue and in some ways, achieves a measure of success.
The issue at hand is euthanasia. Ida’s family is celebrating her 86th birthday around her but it’s her party, she’ll cry if she wants to, for old age has ravaged her pain-wracked body and dementia is starting to take its toll. And as her three daughters and associated friends and family members gather round, cracks begin to show in their determination to have a good time.
There’s more than a whiff of sitcom about the first half but there’s also a scorching insight into the infantilisation that accompanies old age, as best displayed in the utter condescension about where a new thermometer should go. Sandra Voe shows us all the isolation and desolation that comes with being that comes of being stripped of dignity – by family members as much as illness.
After the interval, after a grisly deed is done, the writing becomes a little more didactic as the conversation switches to a debate on the morality of euthanasia and more generally, the way in which we treat the elderly in this country (an issue as pressing 30 years ago as it is now). And with the accompanying lack of subtlety or any real dynamism – Curtains never leaves the front room of Ida’s Midlands terrace – a little of the play’s power dissipates.
Lindsay Posner’s production is very well cast though and this level of quality papers over several of these cracks. Saskia Reeves (in full-on Lady Di garb and ‘do) and Wendy Nottingham as the elder two daughters are both fearsomely good as familial solidarity crumbles under pressure. Caroline Catz also impresses as the youngest, returning from a long period of estrangement to the family home, dressed perfectly in clashing patterns and overstuffed with knick-knacks by designer Peter McKintosh.
Leo Bill (son of the playwright!) as Ida’s grandson and Tim Dutton as one of the sons-in-law get the meatier side of the debate and Dutton in particular, makes an impassioned case for the dignity we all deserve and yet too few in this situation receive.