Writers: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields
Director: Mark Bell
Reviewer: Charlie Senate
“Has anyone seen Winston?” yells the stage manager, frantically zigging through the pre-show crowd at Chester’s Storyhouse. The production’s canine performer, it seems, has gone missing—mere minutes before the opening curtain.
Even in the foyer, the audience is already laughing. Little will change throughout this truly ridiculous disaster lark, a play about a play that literally falls apart—and a two-hour long submersion into pure, liquid schadenfreude.
Five stops into its inaugural UK tour, and fresh off celebrated stints on the West End and Broadway, The Play That Goes Wrong has come a long, long way since its humble beginnings above the Old Red Lion pub theatre in north London. This much can be seen in the already-malfunctioning set—as the audience takes their seats, stagehands hurriedly duct-tape a mantle into place and struggle to shut a door that simply will not stay closed—a suitably-creepy multi-level rendering of an old English manor. Quite an impressive set, one might think, especially for an amateur production; for, indeed, that is the premise of the show: the audience is to witness Cornley Polytechnic’s amateur dramatics society’s new whodunit thriller, Murder at Haversham Manor—“Due to a box office ticket mix-up”, apologies the show’s Director, Chris Bean (Jake Curran). Still, Mr. Bean is convinced the audience will enjoy his directorial debut; far more, certainly, than Cornley’s previous productions, stricken by severe budgetary and performer shortages: T”wo Sisters,” “The Lion and the Wardrobe,” and “Cat.”
The lights go down. In the ensuing dark, murder victim Charles Haversham (Steven Rostance) surreptitiously sneaks into position—that is, until the lights prematurely snap on. Friend Thomas Colleymoore (Kosin Tosin Amore) and manservant Perkins (Benjamin McMahon) attempt to reach the unresponsive Charles through that same stubbornly-ajar stage door—which one of the stagehands has locked. And things progress steadily from there. Prop miscues, forgotten lines, technical faults, a shoddy set, and even unconscious performers collude to breed utter on-stage mayhem, while the amateur actors gamely forge ahead, preposterously adhering to the maxim “the show must go on.”
There are laughs aplenty. In fact, the audience is generally in a state of sustained guffaw. Among the many strong performances, notably Bobby Histron as the victim’s philandering brother, Cecil, and Rostance as the “dead man” himself, the gradually disintegrating set, designed by Nigel Hook, is arguably as integral to the comedy as the performers themselves. The play does lag in places, particularly at the opening. The second act begins like a mediocre movie sequel, rehashing the same gags, again and again, for a cheap laugh, sometimes to the point of tedium—before ascending quickly to its chaotic climax. The physical comedy, however, is exceptional throughout; Director Mark Bell and the entire cast must be commended for the exhaustive choreography and physical commitment that has gone into this production, which, along with the set and the cast, has taken a familiar, if reliable, trope and transformed it into a comic romp of catastrophic proportions.
If there is a quibble—and, by the audience’s reaction, there might not be—it is in the opportunities missed. The real joy is in seeing the sheer panic of amateur cast who are truly out of their depths attempt genuinely to deal with an incredible slew of mishaps while maintaining the sanctity of the show. Too often, in this reviewer’s opinion, the action is played purely for a gag, while the performers pander for laughs. Still, there is no doubt that The Play That Goes Wrong gets “wrong” oh so right; this is light-hearted frivolity at its best, rife with genuine hilarity and comic escapism.
Runs until: 3 February 2018 | Image: