The last few years has seen the Mischief Theatre group go from cult favourites to modern theatrical phenomenon thanks to their back catalogue of madcap plays. Now with the original team packing their bags and taking their original The Play That Goes Wrong to Broadway, British audiences unable to see a performance in London have been treated to a touring production that made it’s way to Sheffield’s beautiful Lyceum Theatre last week. Having wanted to see this play for a long time, my expectations were high.
While the whole play within a play concept has been done before, most famously in Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, The Play That Goes Wrong goes a step further by taking the reality/fantasy blend of Act Two and Three of Frayn’s seminal farce, and we actually see the members of the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Amateur Dramatic Society put on an entire play in front of our eyes and with all the backstage antics and mistakes coming centre stage. Breaking the rules immediately, before the performance begins members of the ‘crew’ go around the audience asking if anyone’s seen a dog before taking a member of the audience on stage to assist them in keeping a shelf from falling off the set.
This set the tone for when the actual play begins and straightaway it was lunacy and high octane bedlam with all the theatrical am dram clichés and mistakes imaginable. Actors fluffing lines, missed ques, coming into early (in this case way, way too early), mispronunciations, wardrobe malfunctions, over acting, props placed in wrong areas, crew ending up on stage, injuries and the set crumbling down in every corner.
The actors in this touring production, including Katie Bernstein, Jason Callender, Edward Howells, Edward Judge, Alastair Kirton, Meg Mortell, Graeme Rooney and Patrick Warner, must be one of the most hard working in the industry. Having to be funny in performance and have the physical stamina to survive a production of this calibre is incredible. What’s remarkable is how precise and choreographed the farcical moments have to be and hats off to them for maintaining high energy and concentration. If any of them had delayed reactions, it’d be difficult for the audience to determine what was intentionally going wrong and what really was!
Each actor brings quirky foibles to each character, particularly Alastair Kirton who as Max constantly breaks out of character and looks at the audience with an Aren’t I wonderful luvvies expression that never grew old. And Graeme Rooney as the stage manager who near the end had to play the one female character was about as hysterical as one could imagine. In fact, the entire cast played each role with deadpan delivery and absolute seriousness. How none of them corpsed (unintentionally) is a mystery.
Unlike many farces that are too silly to take remotely seriously, the brilliance of The Play That Goes Wrong, is how clever the farcical moments are set up, as they perfectly occur during the wrong moments of the Play the company are performing. Murder at Haversham Manor is a clear parody of The Mousetrap and what’s impressive is how the structure of the script never veers off or is dismissed in favour of the farce. It’s by no means a good play in its own right and of course the audience are focusing on the ensuing chaos, but by remaining a consistent narrative, the farcical moments that surround the Play naturally flow. The worst things that could possible happen do and always at the worst moments of the script. For example, the first time Sandra is knocked out by an opening door, her character within the Play is meant to have one of her ‘episodes,’ and the actor’s just stand over her collapsed body and carry on delivering their lines as if nothing is wrong and she’s still acting in the way it’s been rehearsed.
And this happens throughout the performance as the wrong moments happen at wrong times (for them), and the irony of the two events on stage totally contradicting each other makes this a well thought out and clever farce.
The set of Haversham Manor is well constructed and is really the uncredited ninth cast member. There’s an attention to detail in trying to make it look like a murder mystery style house and the writer’s make good use of destroying every last shelf or prop possible.
Farces, and comedies in general, can overdo gags, and while there are a number of recurring gags in The Play That Goes Wrong, they are each time delivered both differently and often unexpectedly to keep their inclusion fresh.
And unlike other farces that outstay its welcome due a final act that descends into ludicrous chaos, while The Play That Goes Wrong does turn up the lunacy, the writers keep it within the realms of believability and don’t let it peak too soon, with the second act containing some of the funniest (and dangerous) stunts I’ve ever seen on stage. This is Noises Off on acid!
Thanks to intelligent writing, well-orchestrated farce and electric performances, this was a play that went wrong, but ultimately did everything right. It’s without doubt one of the funniest performances I’ve seen on stage and for those who believe that farce has nothing more to offer need to see The Play That Goes Wrong. Now Mischief Theatre, please, please, please get The Comedy About A Bank Robbery on the road!