We loved The Play That Goes Wrong when it played at the Old Red Lion, and I’m pleased to report that the transfer to Trafalgar Studios has not dented this wonderful new Noises-Off-esque farce – if anything, it’s enhanced it.
Mischief Theatre are better known for their improvisational comedy shows, but this scripted departure proves, if anything, that this may be more of their forte than the work that made them famous. The Play That Goes Wrong is one of the funniest farces I’ve seen a long time, taking the framework laid by Michael Frayn’s classic Noises Off and running with it to the nth degree – and showing the action from the other angle.
Frayn’s Noises Off, famously, shows the complicated mess that happens behind the scenes of a theatre show. In Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields’ play, we see this from the front, and true to the title, it goes wrong. Well, not just “wrong” – “catastrophically wrong” might be more apt. Everything that could go wrong does: every theatrical pitfall is tripped into face-first by the wonderful cast at a relentless rate, leaving most of the audience gasping for breath after a solid hour of constant laughing. I really can’t overstate enough how funny this is – anyone with any theatrical experience will be rolling in the aisles, while there is enough slapstick to delight the theatrically uninitiated too.
The simple premise of the piece, that a Polytechnic society has managed to source the funds to stage a “classic” murder mystery, The Murder at Haversham Manor, in the West End, is perfectly gauged: not only is the fictional piece of the ilk that often graces village halls all over the country, with more Agatha Christie references than you can shake a stick at, but the simplicity of the premise of the fictional play means that the lacerated final production doesn’t require much of a brain to follow – a deft touch.
I feel quite torn – part of me wants to revel with you in the wonderful comic moments, but I really don’t want to spoil the surprises! Suffice it to say that every theatrical mishap you’ve ever experienced, seen or heard about gets a look in, and the script (and actors) not only revel in each failing, but then raise the stakes time and time again until each problem becomes almost insurmountable – but still they truck on, even with looks of abject fear and despair to the audience.
And there, maybe, may be the only point where The Play That Goes Wrong falls down slightly – the mistakes are so tragic, so over-the-top, that you can’t help but feel that, at some point, time would have been called on proceedings. The show must go on, but most thesps will tell you that, after a certain point, you do call it a night – and I think I would have reached that point halfway in! It’s not too heavy a criticism, nor a huge problem, but the ridiculous play within a play doesn’t translate to a ridiculous overarching play – certainly, Henry Shields’ opening speech as Chris Bean, director and star of the show, leaned more towards one-liners than establishing the seriousness of his character, which might have made the resulting fall and unbending desire to plough on more believable.
But heavens, why am I analysing this to death? It’s a fun, silly farce, and appreciated as such, it’s flawless. Writers Shields, Lewis and Sayer (two of which are also company directors) have written themselves wonderful parts that play to their performative strengths: Shields as the supercilious company director, Lewis as the braying lush and Sayer as the misguided amateur. Other cast members all have moments to shine, from Joshua Elliot’s corpse, Lotti Maddox’s histrionic diva, Dave Hearn’s keen dimwit, Nancy Wallinger’s gormless stage manager and Rob Falconer’s disinterested techie, with not a weak link amongst them.
For thesps, this is a must – it’s such a wonderful parody of amateur theatre disasters, and if Mischief have any sense they’ll be releasing the script for performance: this is a play with appeal beyond the West End! We loved it at the Old Red Lion, and we still love it here.