Writers: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields
Director: Mark Bell
Reviewer: Tom Ralphs
Everyone has seen bad amateur drama – doors that don’t open, guns that don’t fire, dead people that sneeze. Everyone has suppressed a snigger while watching these shows, normally because a friend or family member is in the cast and they don’t want to laugh out loud and let them know what they actually think. The Play That Goes Wrong takes every error that has ever been committed on a stage, puts them all into one script, and then adds more cock-ups and gaffes just to make sure that no opportunity for the play to go wrong is left ignored. In doing this in turns disaster into triumph and produces a classic piece of comedy.
Mischief Theatre don the guise of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society for the production. Their attention to detail, and the completeness of the idea, is shown with a mock-up programme of their show Murder at Haverhsam Manor within the official programme for the play, and with various members of the stage crew running around inside and outside the theatre searching for cast and set ahead of the show. The show proper begins with an announcement from the President of the group that lets you know that they know that they are not the best company ever, but don’t realise just how bad they are. This lack of awareness coupled with the determination that, whatever happens, the show must go on, are two of the many things that make this a great comedy.
The play they are performing is a typical murder mystery, with the body of Charles Haversham lying across a sofa at the start of the play. Except of course, before this happens the person playing the body has to make it on to the stage, and the lights are down. They come back up so that they can get in position. It’s not long till the first actor playing a living person steps on the hand of the dead body, making him shout out in pain. It’s an obvious opener, and the play goes for similar easy gags early on, but it doesn’t take too long until it gets far more adventurous with farce, slapstick, visual gags and wordplay all coming into the mix.
It’s expertly crafted and delivered with perfect timing by a cast that know they have a brilliant script and don’t have to play up their characters for the comedy to come across. The set design by Nigel Hook is superb, with every part of it seemingly designed to fall down or malfunction at the perfect wrong moment. It leads to some fantastic set piece scenes such as one where two cast members are attempting to keep various pieces of set in place while also having to deal with ringing phones they can’t reach and a script that requires messages to be written in a notebook they don’t have with them.
If this was just a parody of bad amateur drama it would not work anywhere near as well as it does. What gives it its magic is that it takes this as its starting point and uses it to craft a piece that mixes physical theatre, verbal comedy, props and set to give you something that works simultaneously on several levels. It’s not an intellectual piece, but it’s undoubtedly one of the cleverest shows you’ll see all year.
Runs until 17 March 2018 then touring | Image: Contributed