Described in the tagline as ‘Fawlty Towers meets Noises Off’, The Play That Goes Wrong is an ambitious piece, seeking to exploit the comic potential of a disastrous play, and the gradual disintegration of its actors’ sanity. Since opening at the Duchess Theatre in September 2014, the show has been an unmitigated triumph, picking up the ‘Best New Comedy’ gong at the 2015 Olivier Awards. With the original members of Mischief Theatre
moving on to Peter Pan Goes Wrong and, subsequently, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, currently playing at The Criterion, they have expanded their ranks. This 2nd-anniversary performance fell to the third cast of actors, seeking to build on the phenomenal success of their predecessors.
Much like Noises Off, the play within the play is an uninspiring piece performed by an inept cast. ‘Murder at Haversham Manor’ is the product of Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, whose President, Chris Bean (Hayden Wood) opens the performance with a hilarious monologue apologising for the mishaps of their previous shows. This sets the tone for a production hampered by bizarre overacting, mislaid props, and an increasingly fragile set. It is staggeringly good fun, with an endlessly creative range of mishaps and a cast that are clearly enjoying themselves every bit as much as the audience.
The play seeks to qualify the calamitous production with insights into the failings of the society – both collectively and individually. A misplaced Duran Duran CD and a poorly designed mantelpiece, both introduced to the audience before the start of the play, have tremendous payoffs, whilst off-stage tensions lend enjoyable depth to the slapstick. Of particular note is the uneasy love triangle containing the oblivious Max (Daniel Millar), stage-hand Annie (Joanne Ferguson) and Max’s vampish co-star, Sandra (April Hughes), as tensions between the latter two spill out onto the stage. All three give wonderful performances, marked by hilarious consistency and, at times, surprising subtlety. In turn, the pathos behind Dennis’s (Drew Dillon) difficulties with his lines, Trevor’s (Fred Gray) ambivalent lighting and sound operation and Jonathan’s (Oliver Llewellyn-Jenkins) frustrations at missing his cues render the embarrassing scenes all the funnier.
Nevertheless, unlike Noises Off, we do not get a complete sense of the company’s inner workings, and what makes each of the actor's tick. For instance, Hayden Wood is a terrifically pompous Chris Bean, and nails his Basil Fawlty-esque breakdown, but he does not have many opportunities to treat his fellow actors with more than bemusement or irritation. Adam Byron’s Robert is brilliantly derisive, humourless and egotistical, with superb comic timing and faux-thespian delivery. Yet whilst his behaviour towards the rest of the company is believably self-centred, we do not experience the impact of this in other, presumably rather affronted performances.
This does not render The Play That Goes Wrong anything less than a fantastically entertaining production; indeed, whilst it is thematically very similar to Noises Off, the tone is a little different. The sense of unhappy rehearsals and the effect of years of ambitious, fretful productions alluded to in Chris Bean’s opening speech, is captured intermittently, complimenting rather than defining the farce. Whilst this enables us to see ‘The Murder at Haversham Manor’ in full – a highly rewarding experience, which may not have been practical in a more character focused piece – it leads to one feeling occasionally detached from the action.
Of course, with such inventive mishaps on show, distraction is impossible. The real star of The Play That Goes Wrong is Nigel Hook’s set – outwardly a functional, old-fashioned sitting room, but in reality, an utterly convincing death trap. Every actor deserves enormous credit for their navigation of this finely calibrated construction. Under Mark Bell’s extraordinary direction – the sword fight alone is worth the price of admission – chaos ensues to the characters’ total bafflement, and without harm coming to any of the actors. Combined with artfully awful lighting and misbegotten sound cues, which invariably worsen as the play progresses, The Play That Goes Wrong is wondrously and faultlessly precise – a testament to the fine margins that creators of farce have to work with.
The Play That Goes Wrong is a highly entertaining show, with a fine new cast of actors and an artfully catastrophic set. Given this, and the British public’s acute awareness of personal embarrassment, coupled with the hilarious and cathartic potential of witnessing it in others, the play is destined to be a long-runner in the West End.