Writers: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields
Director: Mark Bell
Reviewer: Helen Tope
Dying is easy, comedy is hard – and in The Play That Goes Wrong, you will see plenty of both.
Performed by Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, ‘Murder at Haversham Manor’ cannot be accused of misleading its audience. A country house, murder most foul and a room full of suspects, all the ingredients for a murder mystery are here. Charles Haversham is found dead by his brother, Cecil, and childhood friend, Thomas Colleymore. Charles had only recently become engaged to Thomas’ sister, Florence. Inspector Carter is called to the house to investigate, and secrets are revealed. Who murdered Charles Haversham, and why?
As the cast gamely works through the play, things start to go a bit wrong. Cues are missed, props break and there is an alarming disregard for the corpse of Charles Haversham. Plot rapidly turns to farce, and no-one is more horrified than the cast themselves. Shepherded by Chris Bean (Patrick Warner), they attempt to salvage the play despite setting fire to the set and rendering their fellow cast-mates unconscious. By the time the denouement is revealed, it’s survival of the fittest.
Such incompetence could only be achieved by highly-skilled professionals. The Play That Goes Wrong pays homage to the precariousness of split-second timing; one wrong move and everything could go horribly right.
It’s a play that revels in detail, even before the audience is settled, the mayhem begins with stage hands scrabbling for props. The production is full of blink-and-you-miss-them moments and it’s the commitment to making these details fail to come together that makes the play so delightfully unsuccessful.
The creaking sets, and the even creakier acting are all part of a nostalgic tribute to the am-dram productions we simply don’t see anymore. The Play That Goes Wrong never sneers at its subject – even down to the final minutes, there is an earnest desire to nail it – maybe tonight won’t be a complete write-off. It’s a clever touch, endearing the actors to an audience struggling to catch its breath.
The action is set to a giddy pace, and it reaches a frenzy in the second half, as the murderer (or murderers – I’m not telling) is revealed. The plot dissolves into a cacophony of howlers that see Sandra (Meg Mortell) and Annie (Katie Bernstein) rival for leading lady status, after stage-hand Annie gets the acting bug, filling in for a temporarily indisposed Sandra. It’s the classic battle of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford – only with slightly better wigs.
If you are after an evening of murder mystery perfection, you may want to keep looking. But if you enjoy seeing other people get maimed and injured for your amusement, I would strongly advise you to contact the Box Office.
Brave, thought-provoking and visually stunning. The Play That Goes Wrong is none of these things and that’s what makes it so brilliant. It is a triumph of failure, and it’s not often a critic gets to say that.
Runs until Saturday 29 July 2017 | Image: Helen Murray