Words by Lucy Mounfield / Production pics by Helen Murray
On those occasions when a comedic play enters a theatrical program, it’s always a pleasure to know I don’t have to sit up straight, hold my serious-yet-intrigued face and attempt to think too hard about the plot and what it might mean in the larger context of today’s messed up society. And in today’s post- referendum, post-election but not-quite-the-formation-of-Parliament, now is surely the best time for comedy to lift and carry us over this wall of insanity.
The Play That Goes Wrong does exactly what it sets out to do – it tells the story of amateur actors trying to bundle their way through mishap after mishap on stage. Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, The Play That Goes Wrong shows The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society going through the motions of putting on a clichéd ridden 1920’s murder mystery called Murder at Haversham Manor. This is the play within a play bit; you don’t watch The Play That Goes Wrong to find out ‘who done it’.
Even from the beginning the actors break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, asking if we know where their missing props are. This immediately makes it inclusive. Before the curtain rises we are introduced to the director of Murder at Haversham Manor, who also is doubling as Inspector Carter (Chris Bean) a pompous wannabe thespian who is embarrassed by the previous shows put on by the Cornley Drama Society. These include ‘Cat’ and ‘Ugly and the Beast’.
Chris Bean is excellent as the eager director who halfway through the performance breaks down when he can’t find a ledger, which quickly prompts the audience to shout its whereabouts (an audience plant?) making the scene even more hilarious as the ever-professional director tells the excitable audience to be quiet as “it’s not a pantomime”. This obviously incites the audience into a bout of “oh yes, it is” which is then jousted back and forth; this surprise element heightened the fun and made it feel spontaneous.
However The Play That Goes Wrong didn’t make me laugh as much as I thought I would. The title forewarns us about the disasters that befall the amateur acting troupe, and consequently I was waiting for the merriment rather than surprised by it. Indeed everything that can go wrong does and by the end of the play it’s just the actors left standing (though barely) with the set giving up entirely.
The pace of the extended joke is relentless – one thing after another – but as each physical joke occurs I laughed a little less and by the end I was wanting less and less of it. Sure I laughed and so did everyone else, The Play That Goes Wrong can be very funny, but with two acts I felt it was getting strained rather than leading me excitably to the crescendo of the entire set collapsing. The jokes about the door slamming open and knocking out Florence Collymore (Sandra Wilkinson) and the alcohol replacement forcing Thomas Colleymore (Robert Grove) to spit it out repeatedly became a little laboured.
When The Play That Goes Wrong first premiered at the Old Red Lion pub theatre it was just one act running at under an hour, now it is two acts (and an interval) that hits the two hour mark. I think after the interval was the point I began to realise that of course the hilarity is planned; after that I struggled to enjoy it with the same zeal.
The set design by Nigel Hook is incredible, it moves like an actor constantly aware of its surroundings and nimble on its feet. The set has perfect comedy timing; moving, falling and collapsing in just the right way as to squeeze out as much comedy value as possible. Most of all it does create that camp 1920’s murder mystery vibe: the grandfather clock not chiming, long velvet curtains that someone can hide behind, leather armchairs and wood flooring that make that perfect echo which in turn creates the perfect murder mansion feeling.
The costumes are bang on too: 1920’s flapper dresses and headdress for the Florence, tweed jackets, the ubiquitous velvet smoking jacket for the middle-aged gentleman, and the even more ubiquitous pin-stripe cricket outfit complete with jumper for the young fool. This combines to heighten the fun we are at first presented with, something The Mousetrap would be proud of until it all gets a bit wobbly and starts falling to pieces.
The Play That Goes Wrong is a light-hearted show that just wants to make people laugh in the crudest way possible. In my opinion, it goes a little too far and our laughter peaks before the end of the show (or at least mine did). But all in all The Play That Goes Wrong is a respite from the chaos of our current situation; it will take you away from the misery going on in the real world, let you release your clenched jaw, form a smile and laugh… a lot.
The Play That Goes Wrong – Mischief Theatre
The Play That Goes Wrong will be running daily at the Birmingham REP (except Sundays) until Saturday 24th June. Matinee performances will be held on Thursdays and Saturdays at 2pm. For direct event info and online tickets sales, click here.
For more on Mischief Theatre, visit www.mischieftheatre.co.uk
For more from the Birmingham REP, including full event listing and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk