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The Play That Goes Wrong – The Grand, Leeds

Writers:  Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields

Director: Mark Bell

Set Designer: Nigel Hook

Reviewer: Rob Atkinson

This play has a starkly self-explanatory title, but it’s one that rather pushes the boundaries of understatement. To say that the play goes wrong is rather like stating that RMS Titanic had slight buoyancy problems – it’s a phrase that comes nowhere near giving even a hint as to the mayhem that we witness right from the start, which plummets with ever-increasing momentum downhill, to culminate in utter disaster.

All of which means, of course, that as a piece of theatre, this production succeeds brilliantly. It’s another reworking of the old “play within a play” formula that has yielded such a rich harvest of excruciating comedy in the past. What unfolds before the audience’s astounded eyes is a veritable hymn to the efficacy of Sod’s Law; whatever can go wrong, inevitably will. As any theatre person knows, in any theatrical production, there are myriad things that could go awry; usually, one or two will come about, skilfully covered by a competent cast. In this play, the insecurity nightmares suffered by every actor in the history of the stage are made flesh – with very few exceptions. Doubtless the classic dream of being pushed naked from the wings on stage, without a clue as to your lines, would be a step too far, even for this graphic foray into the darkest reaches of any performer’s worry bank. Even so, there are a few scantily-clad mishaps, just to give a nod in that direction.

The production starts before any action on the stage, the scene set at an amateur theatrical evening, with harassed stage folk flitting here and there about the auditorium, asking anxiously about missing props and generally portraying some pre-performance nervous tension. It’s a skilful way of getting the audience into the right mood and cultivating expectations for the near two-hour disaster to follow. And, to the onlookers’ delight, calamity then follows calamity as the cast members – evidently rehearsed to perfection – give a master class in theatre’s darker arts, with pratfalls, hissy fits, collapsing scenery, slapstick violence and over-inflated egos clashing all over the shop. The plot, such as it is, figures merely as a vehicle for catastrophe, and what ensues is laugh-a-minute theatrical anarchy of a deliciously over-the-top brilliance.

The cast ruthlessly portray actors of bumbling ineptitude and fragile personality; each has his or her weakness which is clinically exposed by the worsening situation, and also by the failings of co-performers – or even the technical support. It would be so easy to settle for cheap laughs, but the bar is set far higher here. Little asides, double-takes, growing mutual resentment, the odd descent into overt despair as the evening comes apart at the seams; it’s all there, and by the interval the audience is in sore need of its second wind, having laughed itself silly. 

The pace is as relentless after the break as before, with that sense of ultimate disaster remorselessly approaching as a positive frenzy of incompetence and disaster build towards the inevitable, apocalyptic end. For once, it really is invidious to pick out names, for this is a true ensemble piece with each actor a meshed gear in a beautifully intricate engine of misadventure. There are elements of Fawlty Towers, of the bone-jarring violence we remember from shows such as The Young Ones and Bottom – but above all, despite the effective hyperbole, somehow there is subtlety in what could have been a very unsubtle lampooning of amateur theatre. One bright shining star of the evening that cannot go unmentioned is the set itself, which functions fantastically well in its transition from Beauty to Beast, providing a framework for the exposition of such highly-skilled comedy as you could ever wish to see.

It’s an evening from which audience members emerge exhausted but happy, with their cheeks and ribs aching from a marathon session of laughter, amazement and occasionally shocked surprise. If laughter really is the best medicine, then what we have here is surely the mythical panacea itself – a comedic cure for all ills. Catch it if you can, and see for yourself.

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Writers:  Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields Director: Mark Bell Set Designer: Nigel Hook Reviewer: Rob Atkinson This play has a starkly self-explanatory title, but it’s one that rather pushes the boundaries of understatement. To say that the play goes wrong is rather like stating that RMS Titanic had slight buoyancy problems – it’s a phrase that comes nowhere near giving even a hint as to the mayhem that we witness right from the start, which plummets with ever-increasing momentum downhill, to culminate in utter disaster. All of which means, of course, that as a piece of theatre, this production…

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Excruciating comedy lampoon

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East
The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.