Writers: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields
Director: Mark Bell
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
Since winning the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2015, The Play That Goes Wrong has become an international juggernaut, overwhelming audiences on a global scale. Sheffield’s beautiful Lyceum Theatre hosts the latest outing of this phenomenon, affording a fitting traditional space for this venture.
Even before the curtain rises, and the usherette’s ice creams are back in the freezer, the cast is setting the scene for the series of catastrophes which will sustain the evening. They are hunting a missing dog, trying to fix a dodgy door on the set, and dragging audience members on to the stage to help prop up the scenery. By the time actor/novice Director Chris Bean (Jake Curran) has made his introductory speech, we are already well prepared for an evening of controlled chaos.
The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is performing its latest stage production, Murder at Haversham Manor, author unknown and unpunished. The script is hackneyed, the cast is incompetent, the set is a deathtrap, the technical support constantly distracted by Duran Duran, or anything more interesting, and the props have a habit of trading places with one another. The cast and crew do their utmost to keep this sinking theatrical ship afloat, even when the principal actress is accidentally pole-axed by a petulant door, and the ASM is required to fill in. Catherine Dryden’s Annie was brilliant as the combative scene-stealer, thrust into the limelight and determined to hold onto it.
Acting the part of a bad actor sounds as if it should be simple. It is not. Maintaining the underlying character, while acting another part, adds a layer of complexity for which the young cast provide a masterclass. Whether it be the overplayed semaphore gestures of Bobby Hirston’s Max, or the nervous verbal stumblings of Benjamin McMahon’s Dennis, with his key lines written on his hand. To get things wrong this badly requires skills of a very high order.
In Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off”, Director Lloyd Dallas pleads with his hapless cast to remember that the essence of farce, of theatre, of life, is “doors and sardines”. While no sardines are involved here, the comedy often hinges on, well, hinges, as doors either will not close or open at the required time, or props mysteriously relocate from their set position. Thus Jake Curran’s Chris, in the role of Inspector Carter, finds himself without his detective’s notebook taking a suspect’s statement on a vase, with a set of keys instead of a pencil. Nigel Hook’s set is ingenious, with every item calibrated for calamity. It is no great surprise that the upstairs section of the set descends into the ground floor drawing room; the suspense arises from wondering which of the ludicrous plot devices will trigger the destruction.
The script is very tightly structured and shows few signs of having been stretched to almost twice its original length. Only Jake Curran’s lengthy search for a missing journal felt as if it was padding. Clearly, the technical glitches which can beset any theatre production provide scope for the involvement of Trevor, played by Gabriel Paul, to get things wrong, but his deep affection for Duran Duran seemed an unnecessary addition, and his audience interaction was sometimes a distraction from the main event.
The central conceit of The Play That Goes Wrong is not new, and numerous examples exist of both intentional and unintentional comedy based on scrapes with disaster. But the joy of self-referencing theatrical catastrophes in a theatrical production, and in a real theatre, ticks every box. Let us pray that no-one ever suggests making the film.
Runs until 5 August 2018 | Image: contributed