Having recently hosted a transfer of All Star Pro’s enjoyable production of Kander and Ebb’s first show Flora the Red Menace, the Landor now presents the professional British premiere of the partnership’s last show Curtains, a romp of a backstage musical murder mystery set during the golden era of musical theatre.

Like Flora, Curtains wasn’t an unadulterated hit on Broadway, even though it’s probably the least political and most straightforwardly crowd-pleasing show that Kander and Ebb ever wrote (no Nazis, communists or critiques of the justice system). This majorly scaled-down staging shows Robert McWhir to be one of the most ingenious directors of small-scale musicals, in which the suggestion of Broadway glitz can be as effective as an enormous budget.  

All is not well at the Boston tryouts of Midwestern-set musical Robbin Hood, a blatant attempt to cash in on Oklahoma!’s success. When the show’s reviled leading lady is poisoned on opening night, the damning reviews are much more upsetting than her demise (cue much critic-bashing). In steps Lieutenant Frank Cioffi on his dream investigation, being a pillar of community theatre and a musical theatre fanboy, with two missions: to catch the murderer and re-stage the show (the latter is perhaps more important). While quarantined in the theatre, egos, rivalries, partner swapping and lost love rear their heads and tempers inevitably become frayed.

Backstage musicals are nothing new, but the sparklingly self-referential book (co-written by Peter Stone and Rupert Holmes as Stone died on the job) is filled with laugh-out-loud one-liners. It’s very much like Dames at Sea with more innuendo, but thankfully not as smutty as Lend Me a Tenor. The first half flies by, though the second could lose about fifteen minutes. I was never overly concerned as to who the murderer was (the plotting could be sharper); the best fun is seeing how far the theatrical archetypes can be pushed. Many of the best lines go to Bryan Kennedy as the ever-flippant British director (“It’s an honour just to be nominated”, he proclaims when he’s named as the chief suspect) and Buster Skeggs as the tough-as-nails theatrical capitalist (forget artistry, “It’s a business”).

The cast is uniformly likable and energetic, featuring a mixture of young and experienced performers: Jeremy Legat is full of starstruck eagerness as the mild-mannered yet shrewd detective whose spiritual home is in the theatre (he’s considerably younger than the original star David Hyde Pierce, which works in his favour in regard to the romance with Bronwyn Andrews’s ingénue). Fiona O’Carroll gives a striking turn as the show’s lyricist-turned-leading-lady Georgia, a real old-school Broadway trouper, and Thomas Sutcliffe is also eye-catching as her leading man.

Robbie O’Reilly’s choreography spills out from all corners, and behind the sideways proscenium arch and red curtain of Martin Thomas’s set, the whole theatre world comes to life. A love letter to the theatre accompanied by plenty of the old razzle dazzle has to be the most fitting way to draw a forty-year writing partnership to a close.

Curtains plays at Landor Theatre until September 1 2012. For more information and tickets, please visit the website.