Writers: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Director: Mark Bell
Designer : Nigel Hook
Reviewer: Michael Gray
The Art of Coarse Acting meets Noises Off. Co-written by Mischief Theatre company members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and directed by Mark Bell, The Play That Goes Wrong introduces the “Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society” whose production of a 1920’s murder mystery falls apart before our eyes.
The venture began as a fringe piece, little more than an hour long. Now, for this national tour, it’s twice that length, including the interval – not necessarily an improvement. And the spoof programme, much admired at the Red Lion and the Trafalgar Studios, is nowhere to be found, not even a cast list. Mislaid, no doubt, along with the (running gag) Duran Duran box set – and the dog.
It does remain unbelievably funny, though, reducing the house to helpless laughter. More of an extended sketch than a proper farce, it boasts an amazing technical set, and some exhaustingly physical performances, as the hapless actors drop like flies and risk serious injury in a health and safety nightmare. Props are mislaid and substituted. Fixtures and fittings take on a life of their own. A dialogue loop sees the actors wax increasingly hysterical as they struggle to break free. Whisky goes up in flames, white spirit is the unpalatable substitute. And that raised level – study with desk, chair and globe drinks cabinet – is surely asking for trouble…
The “director” (Henry Shields), who delivers a front-cloth filler at the top of each act, also plays the Inspector, so he’s on stage to see his début dreams collapsing around him. He does rueful desperation and disappointment wonderfully, in a faintly Fawlty style. Jonathan Sayer is Perkins the faithful retainer, as played by an awkwardly unconfident amateur, reading those tricky long words off his palm. The flighty young ingénue is amusingly done by Charlie Russell, replaced by an increasingly bold ASM after the first of many maiming mishaps. But the award for the best incarnation of stage fright, gauche, nervous and grinning in terror, is Dave Hearn, playing both Cecil the corpse’s brother, and Arthur the Gardener.
Techies (played perfectly by actual actors, including Rob Falconer’s grumpy sparks) are let loose among us at the incoming and the interval, while on stage we watch a relentless succession of slapstick and sight gags, performed with precision timing and real relish by an excellent ensemble.
Runs until February 22, then touring till June 21