The Play That Goes Wrong

West End smash hit comedy about accident prone thesps
Photos by Robert Day

January 23, 2018
Slapstick Perfection

Beginning life above a pub in Islington, Mischief Theatre's The Play That Goes Wrong (original title The Murder Before Christmas) has spent the last five years going from strength to strength. Having conquered the West End, Broadway, and the BBC's Christmas schedule for two years in a row, Mischief Theatre are back on the road and arrive to a packed auditorium ready for some Monday night laughs. The show delivered and then some, with slick slapstick stunts and just the right amount of improvised interactions with the audience.

When we first arrive in the auditorium there are early signs of how things will go amiss for the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, tonight performing Murder at Haversham Manor. Trevor, the company's lighting & sound operator, is on the lookout for the company's missing dog, while stage manager, Annie, is taping together the set with gaffer tape. The show-within-a-show's director's opening monologue welcomes us and hints at the other delicious failings of the Drama Society, caused by the limitations of an amateur dramatic group (and anyone who has acted in am-dram will be well aware of these). The play to be performed is one of murder and double-crossing in a snowstorm-hit country house. The plot doesn't really matter but it cheekily hints at some of a certain crime writer's famous stories.

As the show gets underway the errors start small, with missed entrances and misplaced props. But as with any good farce events escalate, with at least one member of the Drama Society incapacitated before the interval. The production is all held together by a committed, talented ensemble and it really can't be stressed enough the comedic prowess on display here. Each actor is given a moment to shine but the play is at its best when the momentum of events builds and sprawls out into larger comedic set pieces that take over the stage. I particularly liked how the pace would momentarily slow down midway through these sequences, lingering on the devastation that is unfolding.

There is a simple joy in watching a group of actors persevere through the increasing calamities of the show they are in. The audience wills them on to make it through each scene, to survive their night on stage and for the play to finally reach its conclusion. While The Play That Goes Wrong lacks some of the complexities of the great behind-the-scenes comedy Noises Off (there are none of the tears, tantrums and complicated relationships of Michael Frayn's play here) it does bring a warmth and heart to proceedings that goes beyond the achievements of the complicated slapstick.

If it isn't apparent at this point, I adore the works of Mischief Theatre. Their madcap evenings are wonderfully calamitous, all held together by a magnificent group of actors. The Play That Goes Wrong is a show guaranteed to leave you guffawing and chuckling throughout its sprightly two hours.

January 28, 2014

The Play That Goes Wrong is anything but, being a masterclass in perfectly executed physical comedy and spot on timing. This technically complex piece is delivered by a slick company very adept at getting it wrong and inducing gales of laughter from the audience. There are times when you fear for the actors’ safety, so convincing are the collapsing sets and the actors’ response to them. Award for the most intrepid actor must go to Henry Lewis (playing Robert, a performer prone to dreadful over-acting) keeping calm on an increasingly precarious raised stage, while hats off to Charlie Russell for enduring a right battering from the set and fellow actors, as well as for a truly surprising entrance.

The Play That Goes Wrong is a play within a play. We are introduced to the inept and accident prone Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society as they bring a hackneyed 1920's murder mystery (A Christie spoof Murder at Haversham Manor) to the stage, a journey of hope over experience given their past track record. Chris (Henry Shields) the arrogant head of the drama society has directed the piece and cast himself as the dynamic Inspector. Dire wannabe actress Sandra (Charlie Russell) and hopelessly stage struck Max (Dave Hearn) dreadfully misjudge the romantic interest, while hapless young Dennis (Jonathan Sayer), playing an aged butler, struggles to pronounce words of more than one syllable. The performance lurches from one disaster to another as actors get knocked out, the play gets stuck on a loop as a terrified understudy loses their place, props go missing and the set falls down before the preposterous who-dunnit is solved.

The production did produce an effect similar to Marmite in the packed Playhouse auditorium. For every person hooting with laughter and clapping the beautiful timed prat falls and hammy acting, there was another clearly not finding it that funny. The humour is very simple and the joke – amateur thespians are pretty clueless – does wear out after a bit. This production, which has grown from an hour long London fringe show into an Edinburgh Fringe 2013 hit and onto a national tour, is now an over-extended two act play and unfortunately the writing isn’t strong enough to sustain an hour and forty-five minutes. Much more could be made of the relationships, rivalries and grudges in the Cornley Drama Soc and the different ways they respond as the catastrophic production goes on. The characters were all out of one mould (with the exception of the put-upon stage hand/understudy given a spirited interpretation by Lotti Maddox). A very minor point, but one which did stretch credulity, most amateur groups would give their collective right hands for a. the ratio of men to woman (6:2) and b. a company all in their 20s.

However it is a rare thing, a play that is a family show, and teenagers in particularly will probably find this a very funny night out. Get into your seats well before the show start time as the comedy is already underway with two desperate stage hands trying to patch up a badly-built set before the play proper begins. The Play That Goes Wrong is on national tour until June.

Brilliantly inventive and funny farce. Just what the doctor ordered for this miserable wet January. The fun starts as soon as you sit down with the techs of Cornley needing your help to set up.
Enjoyed every minute of it. Haven't laughed so much in ages.

Saw this list night. Laughed so much that I cried. Occasionally the same joke repeats itself, but still a lot of corkers. Some great performances, and a great set. Had gone into the theatre full of January woes, and came out feeling a real buzz.

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