Writers: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields
Director: Mark Bell
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
It is unusual enough for a fringe hit to transfer from an above-the-pub theatre to the West End. Far more exceptional for that production to go on to win an Olivier award, transfer to Broadway, inspire two stage spin-offs, two BBC specials and show no signs of stopping.Yet that is what Mischief Theatre, the production company behindThe Play That Goes Wrongand its offshoots have achieved. At the heart of all the productions is the formula which they hit upon for the original show: present an otherwise ‘normal’ play as if staged by the most incompetent cast and crew ever assembled.
While 2017’s BBC Christmas special,A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong, may have shown that the formula is stretching a bit thin, the touring production ofThe Play That Goes Wrongillustrates exactly why Mischief’s success has been so warranted.
Ostensibly a by-the-book murder mystery staged by an amateur group, things start going wrong before the play even starts, as the stage managers struggle to make last-minute fixes to the set, to the point of drafting in a hapless stooge from the audience.
By the time the action begins, it is obvious that the ‘Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’ is not populated by those blessed with thespian skill. Commendably, though, they are all imbued with the spirit of insisting that the play must go on, even when props fail, important items of the set go missing and the corpse has to walk off and on under his own power. The result is two hours of hilariously catastrophic mayhem that make this one of the best comedies currently on tour.
Of course, such incompetence is only funny because of the professionalism of the actors playing such dimwits. The slapstick involved is only so uproarious because every seemingly unplanned deviation from the script of Murder at Haversham Manor is meticulously crafted.
Nigel Hook’s set design is cunningly crafted to look like the sort of country house setting that would be familiar to many an audience of a touring murder mystery. Of course, it is designed to be what Gabriel Paul’s sound operator describes as “a bloody deathtrap”, with health and safety seemingly the first casualty of amateur theatre.
Of all the actors who must suffer indignity in the name of slapstick comedy, Elena Valentine’s Sandra/Florence receives the brunt of the physical work, while the increasingly frenetic close to Act I, which sees a quartet of actors get stuck in a dialogue loop until one actor can deliver a key line, leans heavily on Kazeem Tosin Amore, Jake Curran and Benjamin McMahon.
But it is Catherine Dryden’s stage manager Annie who makes the show, from her attempts to replace a vital mantelpiece to her substitution for a key player, causing her to overcome her initial stage fright. Amongst all the mayhem and madness, hers is a character arc that manages to find a welcome element of sweetness.
Runs until 10 February 2018 and on tour | Image: Contributed