Stage Door Review

London, GBR: The Play That Goes Wrong

Saturday, February 20, 2016


by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer & Henry Shields, directed by Mark Bell

Mischief Theatre, Duchess Theatre, London, GBR

September 14, 2014-March 19, 2020

June 18, 2021, booking to May 4, 2025

Thomas Colleymoore: “But, what’s this? Charles, unconscious?”

It’s easy to predict the future of The Play That Goes Wrong. Having won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 2015, it will run forever in the West End and a second production will open on Broadway. Since it’s a play that depends on physical rather than verbal comedy, it’s the kind of show that will appeal to tourists whose first language is not English as well as native English-speakers who like slapstick. Once the producers licence the show to regional theatres, it will be done all over North America, just as happened with the 2007 Olivier Best Comedy Award winner, The 39 Steps.

Winning an annual award does not ensure that all winners are equal since the pool of choices can vary so much from year to year. The Play That Goes Wrong is funny if you like your comedy to be very physical, almost like a parody silent movie comedy on overdrive. But it is also silly to the point of alienation. It is no equal to The 39 Steps which was a celebration of theatrical invention where only four actors played over 150 roles and put on stage with great imagination scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name that one might think would defy staging.

There is a lot of vitality in TPTGW, but but the sole point is to get a laugh. In fact, the play veers far to easily into the “anything for a laugh” territory instead of focussing on its initial premise. What we see in TPTGW is supposedly the opening night performance by the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society under the direction of his founder Chris (Harry Kershaw) who is attempting to put on the (fictional) 1920s’ murder mystery, Murder at Haversham Manor by (fictional) playwright Susie H. K. Brideswell.

The greatest play about a play going wrong still remains Michael Frayn’s farce about farce Noises Off (1982). The great advantage Frayn’s play has over TPTGW is that Frayn’s Act 1 presents the dress rehearsal of the play the company is presenting which allows Frayn to explore the personalities of the actor who will play the various characters. The humour, thus, has more to do with the conflict of characters than it does with people getting hit over the head. TPTGW begins on opening night and the only prelude is a curtain speech by Chris. Thus, whatever the personalities of the actors are we have to infer from their various lapses in acting. All this gives us really are clichés of amateur acting types – the showoffs male and female, the semi-unwilling, the stalwart, the barely competent, etc.

This means that TPTGW is almost entirely about the the physical problems of staging a play with inadequate resources. Doors won’t stay shut, doors won’t open, the set is unstable, props go missing or are in the wrong place, blocking causes collisions, thrown paper squares has to indicate a snow storm and so forth. When TPTGW is at its best it shows the hapless troupe trying to cope with problems that really can go wrong on stage. Actors have to improvise to cover another actor’s forgetting his lines or make do with a alternative prop. An actor has to substitute for another, script in hand, at the last moment. And, in the finest part of the play, two actors get out of synch in speaking their lines so that one is always giving the answers to questions that haven’t yet been asked.

While the play goes wrong in the right ways many times, it also goes wrong in the wrong way just as often. Two actors are stuck holding wall ornaments on the wall after they’ve fallen off. The phone rings and they struggle both to hold the ornaments on the wall and answer the phone. Here we laugh simply because the actors are being stupid. The stage manager has to substitute for the lead actor who has just been knocked out. She’s very unwilling and awkward and so far this is believably comic. Later, however, the lead actress comes round and wants to take back her part. Now, we are to believe that the stage manager has so gotten into acting that she will fight rather than give up the part. This is not believable and since we have been given no prior introduction to the actors’ personalities, the conflict comes out of nowhere and seems more an intrusion on the main action than a useful addition to it.

The play is only two hours long including the intermission, but it becomes clear before the first act is over that the authors are running out of ideas. The show runs out of its supply of fake whisky and so the butler substitutes rubbing alcohol. The cast all spit out their drinks after the first toast. Why they continue drinking and spitting after they know what it is makes no sense. It’s funny when the first person is knocked out when hit in the face with a stuck door. It’s not so funny when it happens about nine more times. Missing or misplaced props is a major source of humour, but after a while we have to wonder why so much of the dialogue consists of people asking other people fetch things for them except as an overused method of generating jokes.

For what they have to do the cast is outstanding. The action moves beyond mere physical comedy into the acrobatic. Laurence Pears* as the body of Charles Haversham, effortlessly puts up with an enormous amount of abuse as he is stepped on, dropped and otherwise thrown about the set. Harry Kershaw playing the director Chris, who is playing Inspector Carter, is especially adept at verbal comedy and the dry delivery of ridiculous lines. Bryony Corrigan and Leonard Cook playing the siblings Florence and Thomas Colleymoore are both very funny in displaying the pleasure of overacting. Cook’s character frequently congratulates himself on a word or deed well done, while Corrigan’s character makes sure we notice her sultry sex appeal.

James Marlowe well plays the perpetually angry Cecil Haversham and Niall Ransome has numerous amusing moments as the incompetent butler Perkins as played by the incompetent actor Dennis. We know even less about the two crew members in the show – Annie the stage manager played by Laura Kirman and Trevor the techie played by Chris Leask. It’s humorous that they get involved in acting in the show at all, but the writers haven’t bothered to ask who’s calling the show if Annie is on stage or who’s doing the lights and sound when Trevor is on stage. A bit more detailed thinking along those lines would make the show even funnier.

Director Mark Bell, significantly for understanding the show, has a degree in clown. He whips the show along at a fast clip and gives it the structure of crescendo of jokes beginning with the verbal and moving on to the increasingly more physical. If Noises Off still remains the ne plus ultra of plays about plays going wrong, Tom Stoppard’s comedy The Real Inspector Hound (1968) still remains the best-ever satire of the traditional British mystery play, and, even though it is in only one act, Stoppard managed to skewer the egotism of theatre critics at the same time.

Character development and multiple themes are not to be sought in The Play That Goes Wrong and the play itself makes no pretence that they should be. The title tells you exactly what you’re going to get. If you’ve had a particularly bad day and would like to see a group of people have an even worse evening, this is the play for you. If, however, you like to have even a modicum of subtlety to season your comedy or think that even silliness can become tiresome after a while, you will have to look elsewhere.

Christopher Hoile

*From April 4, 2023, the cast will include Rolan Bell as Robert, Daniel Cech-Lucas as Chris, Luke Dayhill as Jonathan, Lucy Doyle as Sandra, Gavin Dunn as Trevor, Iona Fraser as Annie, Keith Ramsay as Dennis, Ross Virgo as Max, and understudies Harry Bradley, Elliot Goodhill, Rosie Meek, Hisham Abdel Razek, and Tommi Vicky. The creative team is the same.

Suitable for ages 8+

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Niall Ransome, Laurence Pears, James Marlowe, Bryony Corrigan and Leonard Cook; Harry Kershaw as Inspector Carter; Harry Kershaw and James Marlowe. © 2014 Helen Murray.

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