Above: Jason Manford (centre) and Ore Oduba (far right) rehearse with the company of Curtains. Photo: Paul Johnson
John Kander and Fred Ebb – more commonly known as Kander & Ebb – will be best known as the creators of two of the most successful musicals in theatre history; Chicago & Cabaret. However, another Kander & Ebb show, successful on Broadway, but never produced professionally in the UK (although amateur rights have been available for years) is at last preparing to tour the UK.
Curtains is a musical-comedy-whodunnit and is set to star comedian-come-theatre-performer Jason Manford; 2016’s Strictly Come Dancing winner, Ore Oduba; and ex-Hollyoaks star, Carley Stenson… as well as a top-notch cast including the likes of Alan Burkitt, who toured to high acclaim across the UK in the Fred Astaire role of Gerry Travers in Top Hat.
Sardines was lucky to drop in on the cast during their secret rehearsals just ahead of the show’s imminent October opening at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre…
Salford-born Jason Manford may trip of the tongue as one of the country’s most popular comedians but, in recent years, the talented funny man has not only featured in television dramas such as ITV’s Ordinary Lies and the BBC’s latest sitcom, Scarborough, he has also turned in some highly acclaimed theatre performances in Sweeney Todd, The Producers, Guys and Dolls and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Manford stars as musical theatre-loving detective, Frank Cioffi, who is investigating the shock murder of Jessica Cranshaw, leading lady of hit show, Robbin’ Hood. With the entire cast and crew under suspicion, Frank must try to solve the murder with his head also immersed in the show. His high profile means that Manford is in the fortunate position of cherry-picking his work these days. Presumably the draw of Frank Cioffi was too good to turn down? “Yeah! It was actually,” is Jason’s immediate response. “Not only is it Kander and Ebb, it’s a Kander and Ebb you’ve never seen. It’s a bit like finding an album from your favourite singer that you’ve never heard of.”
The comedian expands further: “They came and asked me about it and I said that I’d never heard of it, so I asked asked Andrew Hilton, the MD of Chitty – which I was doing at the time – and he said, ‘Oh my God, I saw it on Broadway and it’s one of my favourite shows and I’ve been waiting for it to come over here.’ In fact, if you ask anyone within the industry, it’s a real favourite. They all seem to know it, can quote it and sing the songs. So yes, for me it was an easy sell really.”
The comedy element of the show is an obvious draw for Manford, “My character is trying to solve a crime but, at the same time he’s trying to fix this show within a show. There are little bits when he might say suddenly, ‘I’ve got it!’ And they’d all say, ‘You’ve solved the murder?’ Then I’ll say, ‘No, the finale!’” Jason’s excitement is obvious, and he hasn’t had to add a single joke. “It’s all in the script. It’s all there,” he says. “I’ve added nothing. I wouldn’t be so bold to tamper with anything. It’s going to be a hit, I can feel it.”
Having made a name for himself in The Producers, I ask Jason if the obvious connection has helped him. “Oh, Leo Bloom, absolutely,” agrees the Salford star. “When you watch this show, Becky Lock’s character, Carmen, and me have a real Leo and Max relationship. She’s very Max Bialystock, the producer. My character, Frank Cioffi, is a guy with a very mundane-ish job in the police – who has a love for theatre… and that’s Leo Bloom. The voice is slightly different and I’ve gone into a higher register than my own voice to give him a slight vulnerability. But he’s a brilliant detective, and knows his stuff. He just loves musical theatre which is where he comes alive – quite similar to Leo Bloom actually.”
Jason Manford maybe a star today, but it wasn’t always like that. Aged seventeen he accidentally fell into being a stand-up, and then, aged around thirty, the same happened with musical theatre. So, which is it… pure luck or a cunning plan? “I wouldn’t say I’ve got a plan,” he tells me, before singing the virtues of running both careers in parallel: “To be honest, the gift of stand-up comedy – at a certain level – means you’re able to try other things. With stand-up, I can do a tour, finish it and then I’ve got a couple of years while writing the next one. That means I can dabble in things I enjoy doing; an episode of QI here and there or 8 out of 10 Cats does Countdown – or whatever it is. But I’ve always loved musical theatre so, for me, this doesn’t feel like I’m filling time between my stand-up tours. The benefit, especially when we’re on a tour and stuff, is having the daytime to myself which is massive for me because I’m able to write. I’m also in different towns and I’m surrounded by creativity; it fizzes in the air when you’re with this many talented people. And then I’m onstage every night performing and honing it in order to get it right.”
Jason has also seen his stand-up career improve as a direct result of working in the theatre. “I’ve got to say my last stand-up tour, Middle Class, was the best tour I’ve ever done,” he tells me. “That was 100% because I’d been in theatre shows. I’ve got a funny story about me and my wife when we went to Italy, but now because of the strength and creativity that theatre gives you it’s become much more animated and full of energy; accents, acting it out… So it’s actually bought my stand-up alive. I’ve bought theatre to my stand-up. And hopefully, I’ve brought some comedy to the theatre in return.”
I’m intrigued by the smooth transition from comedian to actor. “If you think about it in stand-up we are already acting,” is the thoughtful reply. “All stand-ups are actors. We’re just in charge of the script and the direction, the producing and the editing. Also, comedy is the hardest thing to do; it’s harder than drama and tragedy. You’re trying to elicit a response from the audience, the most wonderful response you can get out of a human being – laughter and joy.”
Singing has always been one of Jason Manford’s strengths, in fact something of a family tradition. “When it comes to singing, my family were all singers,” he tells me. “My grandparents on my mother’s side came over from Dublin in the 50s and they were folk musicians in a little duo, and they had eleven children. There was no telly, and they lived in a three-bedroom house and my grandmother taught them all to sing. They had a piano in there and some guitars, and gradually, by the mid-70s they had this big show band – which were very big then. Same outfits, dance routines… I think they even did Opportunity Knocks. In the North West they were quite a big thing. Even now, if I’m up there and go into an Irish bar occasionally there will be an old Irish fella who will come up to me and say, ‘Are you Nora’s grandson?’ with a little tear in his eye. That’s where we used to spend our weekends, occasionally getting up and singing a song. I loved Elvis and, at seven years old, I’d do a few songs.”
“I always thought I’d be a pub singer and do the circuits,” continues Jason. “But then the stand-up came along. I was working in a pub at the time and the stand-up didn’t turn up so I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll have a go at this.’ It’s funny, if I’d have said to my family, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer,’ they’d have said, ‘What! You’ll go into bloody show business!’”
As well as theatre, Jason is also part of the BBC’s latest sitcom, Scarborough, which follows another non-musical role in ITV’s Ordinary Lies. “I loved doing that show, it was one of the favourite things I’ve ever done. I think Scarborough for the BBC will go on for another series; touch wood, it’s in the diary anyway. I’ve just got to see what comes up really. My wife’s a drama producer, but she’s never cast me in anything.”
So, it seems character acting is where it’s at for Mr Manford. “I had an American casting director who said to me once, ‘The thing with you, honey, is that you’re not good looking enough to be the romantic lead but you’re actually not fat enough to be the fat friend!’” …I’m still trying to work out if that’s a back-handed compliment.
Either way, Jason is in the fortunate position of keeping his profile up by his TV appearances. Although nothing’s perfect it would seem. “It’s not what it was I must say. When I was first doing telly, I remember doing a show for ITV called Comedy Rocks and we pulled in about 3½ million viewers on a Friday night. And they said, ‘The numbers are not enough to give this a second series.’ But if we got those numbers now they’d be saying, ‘Oh my God, this is a hit!’ Television’s changed a lot from when we had just four channels to pick from. If you were a TV star then everyone knew you. But with 70 million people in the country a lot more people are not watching you than are. Having said that, without the telly, you wouldn’t be able to tour and have your name on the poster.”
Jason is aware of the difference between TV and live theatre: “Fundamentally, with musical theatre you’ve also got to be able to nail it. Audiences only come once, and for an audience it’s always the first night.” And being more famous as a stand-up still, there is always that feeling of having something to prove. “It’s hard when you’re performing in a show like this. During my first solo song in the show there’s part of you that thinks that you’ve got to prove to the audience that you can do it and can sing… But actually that’s not the story trying to tell, so you do have to lay off the performance a bit sometimes.”
As Ore Oduba walks past I can’t help asking Jason if dancing might be yet another string to his bow. Would he ever follow him into the Strictly den? “Well here’s an exclusive,” he says… which sits me up! “I was signed up to do it in 2009. I was about to start rehearsals and just before the announcement was made my daughters were born premature. They’re fine now but they weren’t at the time, and my wife was very poorly. I had to make the call and decided that I wasn’t able to do it. Funnily enough, Chris Hollins took my place and then went on to win it. So, who knows what might have been.”
As Jason is called away, I’m able to grab a few minutes of the Strictly winner’s time. Ore Oduba is playing Aaron Fox and is happy to expand on the role: “He’s quite an intense, frustrated figure,” he explains. “Aaron is the composer of the show within a show that we watch, and not surprisingly he loves music. There are a lot of stories and subtexts going on; his relationship with his ex-wife [Carley Stenson’s character, Georgia]. He also has a few problems and work struggles going on… which we can all relate to.”
I ask Ore if the show is making the most of his dancing skills. “You know I took my wife to Broadway for Valentine’s Day and we went to see another Kander & Ebb show, Chicago,” he cryptically replies before modestly explaining. “It was a big all-singing, all-dancing Broadway show, and it blew my mind. And to be honest some of these guys we are working with have themselves been all over the world and trained in so many different genres. They’re amazing, and here’s me turning up for my first proper musical show. So I’m in this kind of bubble, but I have to tell you it’s fantastic.”
Ore continues. “For two and a half years I’ve had some vocal coaching, because there was no way I could have gone into a show as soon as Strictly was over, I’ve got way too much respect for the industry for that.”
Ore’s fellow cast member, Alan Burkitt, is one such expert who has danced and sung at the very top of the musical theatre tree. Burkitt also used to choreograph some of the routines on the BBC’s Strictly. “He still choreographs routines on Strictly,” Ore corrects me. “I bumped into him when we were doing the photocall for the show and I immediately recognised him. Alan is supremely talented and provides a wealth of talent and experience. I mean for goodness sake he played the lead in the Top Hat tour and was in the West End show with Tom Chambers.”
With Jason falling into the industry almost by accident, I ask Ore if his own masterplan included musical theatre. “You really don’t ever know where life is going to take you,” is the telling answer. “The truth is I did a lot of theatre when I was at school; if there was ever a show or a stage production, I was in it. It was only when I was in Strictly that I realised I’d shelved that part of my life – so many people do, because you’ve got responsibilities and family to look after with mouths to feed. Strictly reminded me that this was really something I loved to do and it gives you the chance to be really ambitious. From mine and Joanne’s [Ore’s winning Strictly partner, Joanne Clifton] perspective, to go on and win it gave us a whole new confidence and lease of life… it’s quite telling that Joanne has since made the full-time move into musical theatre herself. It’s writing your own story really. There are only thirteen other people who have won it, and I decided that I’ve got to do something with this. So that’s my plan at the moment. One thing’s for sure, the pressure of performing live on Saturday night dancing for three minutes is terrifying; I genuinely still get the cold sweats.”
Prior to The Queen’s Theatre’s closure for refurbishment (reopening as The Sondheim Theatre), Carley Stenson was playing Fantine in Les Miserables. For her, ten years in Hollyoaks has now been followed up with an equal amount of time in theatre. She tells me about her role in Curtains: “Georgia is the lyricist of Robbin’ Hood, which is the show within a show, and she used to be a performer herself, and gets to perform again in the lead after one of the cast is murdered.”
Stenson, too, is looking forward to taking the show on the road. “There aren’t that many shows out there at the moment which represent a big MGM-style musical mixed with a murder mystery and plenty of comedy. There is genuinely is something for everyone in this show.” After two years in Les Mis, she is back performing comedy, the genre that she loves more than anything. “I think when you’re doing a comedy it’s very easy because everybody’s ready to have a laugh,” she says. “When you’re rehearsing in front of mirrors in a comedy like this you really can’t take yourself too seriously. And it’s a very safe space to be in, which has filtered down from the director.”
She continues. “In fact Les Miserables was the only production I’ve done that wasn’t comedy – I did try but they kicked it into touch. Ha, ha! Mind you, there was a lot of comedy backstage. I was definitely one of those kids growing up who was always having a laugh and always trying to make people laugh. After two years I was definitely ready to get back into something funny and I didn’t realise how much I had missed it until I started doing this show. Working with a comedian who is brilliant at what he does is the icing on the cake; there’s nothing better than making people laugh.”
Carley is very aware how hard comedy is to get right. “There’s a fine line between making people laugh and overacting or hamming it up. You don’t want to over egg it so the audience can see the butt of the joke coming a mile off. A director once told me, ‘Don’t put a hat on a hat!’ and that’s very true.”
In the absence of Jason Manford, who is now rehearsing elsewhere, it comes down to Ore to agrees with his co-star. “Understanding the style of comedy is very important too, which is why we have four weeks rehearsal [quite a long time in the professional sector]. You can’t just deliver a joke and expect a laugh; you have to find and understand the rhythm… and why you’re saying it. Luckily, we have the company to deliver that night after night.”
Tickets & dates: curtainsmusical.com