The Theatre Museum used to have its own building in Covent Garden, but ever since it was taken over and minimised inside a remote corner of the Victoria & Albert Museum it’s very easy not to know it still exists.
Now, until August, the V & A has expanded the museum space to accommodate an exhibition called Curtain Up, celebrating 40 years of London and New York theatre and the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards.
Most of the original exhibits are still on view: the costumes, Kylie’s dressing room, the huge Rhinoceros and Joey from War Horse. But now there is much more, including a Curious Incident room, where you can sit in a miniature version of the set with the lights flashing amid that evocative music; extracts from shows such as Matilda and Les Mis; displays of old programmes, letters to and from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office (the censor) requesting changes to be made to plays by Joe Orton and others; and you can listen in on interviews with actors, designers and directors etc on headphones attached to monitors.
Unfortunately, considering theatre is all about sound and vision, much of it is inaudible and/or hard to see. The censors’ letters and old prompt scripts for instance are displayed in understandably dim light, but too far away to read (for my ageing eyes). And the interviews, transmitted through headphones, are virtually inaudible. The discussion with theatre people from both sides of the Atlantic comparing the influence of critics for instance, which I was particularly interested to hear, was a case in point. (I did ask a lady attendant about this and she said yes, there had been some problems with sound, which they are trying to address.)
Being an old-fashioned and conventional soul I do still like my museum exhibits to be displayed in chronological order however; or at least to give me an overview of what to me is the most fascinating way that theatre has evolved, and continues to. I acknowledge it’s only covering the last 40 years but I still didn’t get much of a sense of this in the exhibition – changing shapes of theatres for example, and changing audiences and expectations. That said it was a brief visit and I intend going back, when hopefully the sound issue will be resolved (and the schoolkids are back at school – though it’s great to see them enjoying the hands-on exhibits).