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The Play That Goes Wrong – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writers:  Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer & Henry Shields

Director: Mark Bell

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Michael Green’s dramatis majeure, The Art Of Coarse Acting (Hutchinson & Co, 1964) variously, if not vicariously, defines a coarse actor as one who‘Can remember the pauses but not the lines.’

All the stage is a whirl tonight in anticipation of a play within a play the likes of which has never been seen, or attempted before. Well, apart, say, from Hamlet – and look how that turns out with its Scandi-noir abattoir dénouement. Mind, this one has a poisonous twist as well. But don’t worry about spoiler alerts; the cast is way ahead on that one. They are more importantly earnest in spoiling everything.

Mischief Theatre Company’s comedy of fellas and dames really do know how to murder a play: correction – how to do a murder play.

Against all the odds, and as if being endorsed by Ant & Dec, those perky, Peter-down-the-Pan Tyneside howler monkeys wasn’t bad enough, The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society intend to stage their very own1920s murder misery: correction – mystery – The Murder at Haversham Manor. Perhaps the counter-ironic association with Miss Haversham’s pyrotechnic nemesis in Great Expectations escapes them – almost everything else seems to – lines, cues, timing and talent. It is all spectacularly enjoyable. Very soon the audience is near to needing de-fibrillating in the aisles with kitsch-me-slap-shtick, kick up the farce hilarity overload. If it’s all a load of pants – things can only get wetter.

Tonight’s histrionic, melodramatic  ‘murder’ outrage has only one major disappointment – it’s all over in a tear-drenching blink of the eye.

A red rag to a bull in a china-shop, walking into collapsing furniture, am-dram Armageddon – the denouement is of such set/prop destruction you’d believe that Royston Vasey’s vet apocalypse, Mr. Chinnery, was advising on Health & Safety. Think of The Mousetrap performed in the TARDIS. How can so much clumsiness, desperation to please, dire direction and hapless lack of self-irony be squeezed into such a confined space? But the show must go on, and it does – on – and on. Not so much a whodunnit as why, for pity’s sake, do it in the first place?

No telegraphed red herrings needed here, there’s more than enough fishy dealings evident in the Library tonight. It’s game on for I’m Sorry, They Haven’t a Cluedo.

Taking the ‘Locked Room’ trope to its bathetic obvious, apparent dead bodies make discreet exits with an audience ingratiating signature wink – nothing becomes their death like the milking of it.

Admittedly, there are moments where they over-egg the pudding so much some of it ends on their faces. But for The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society – an ouef is never an ouef. Their dreich, Scot ‘tech-man’, brooding front stage-left, has certain issues. He still hasn’t found prop-dog Winston and some radge has maybe nicked his Duran Duran CD. It’s all going to end in beers.

Euphoric or Pyrrhic, epiphianic or shambolic, this show epitomises the indomitable spirit of the Coarse Actor  – remaining true to their muse, or possibly too bemused to be true. It’s how grown-ups ought to be allowed to behave more often. Snobbery with violence? A poke in the œil for Poirot, a salutary acting course for Morse? Remember, many a once respected actor has corpsed in a Midsomer (S)laughter?

Highlight tonight? Chris Bean plays Inspector Carter, ersatz maître’d at this Mad Hatter’s party of the incompetent. He’s driven beyond despair, at his limited wits’ end. Where is that vital evidence, the damn ledger? A benevolent voice from the audience suggests he looks under the couch. He flips with manic outrage. ‘This is a serious play! You don’t just join in! I’ve seen a man in the front row that hasn’t so much as laughed once these last 45 minutes! It’s not a pantomime, Birmingham.’

OH YES IT IS! And so on. His pathos plundering parrying is atomic-clock perfectly timed and instructively matchless. A blunderbuss blast of gut-busting delight. Mr Green would be proud.

Runs until 24 June 2017 | Image: Helen Murray

Writers:  Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer & Henry Shields Director: Mark Bell Reviewer: John Kennedy Michael Green’s dramatis majeure, The Art Of Coarse Acting (Hutchinson & Co, 1964) variously, if not vicariously, defines a coarse actor as one who‘Can remember the pauses but not the lines.’ All the stage is a whirl tonight in anticipation of a play within a play the likes of which has never been seen, or attempted before. Well, apart, say, from Hamlet - and look how that turns out with its Scandi-noir abattoir dénouement. Mind, this one has a poisonous twist as well. But don’t worry about spoiler alerts;…

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.