The Play that Goes Wrong
Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Mischief Theatre Company
Cardiff New Theatre
From 11 February 2014 to 15 February 2014
Review by John Johnson
The problem with The Play that Goes Wrong at Cardiff New Theatre was always going to be the inevitable comparisons with Michael Frayn's brilliant Noises Off. In essence this is act three of that self-same play but just expanded into two hours of slapstick and farce. Funny, certainly. Original? I'm not so sure.
Nothing should be taken away from Mischief Theatre’s Production in terms of doing what it sets out to do. It is riotously hilarious in places—the Lifting of a fainted leading lady (Charlie Russell’s Florence) out of a downstairs window is one moment that typifies the approach which constantly raises the stakes in the world of the inconceivable.
Indeed the clever direction has the hallmark of a clowning approach, so it should come as no surprise that director Mark Bell Is a graduate of École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. There are moments where the performers seem to be on the edge of possibility and then push themselves further (Henry Lewis as Robert writing backwards whilst holding up objects with a head, both arms and a leg during an impossible phone call is typical of this).
There is no doubt that this is a clever and hard-working ensemble effort with excellent timing from even the smallest of roles. Greg Tannahill’s performance as Jonathan, the dead body for most of the performance, has imperious comic timing, playing the straight man to the larger-than-life characters surrounding him.
There are fine performances in the tradition of farce and every am-dram characteristic in the book is covered, from the melodramatic Florence Colleymore (Charlie Russell) to the self-aware interpretive gestures of Cecil Haversham (Dave Hearn). There is no weak link in the ensemble and this is vital if this style of performance is really going to work.
The performers are well supported by a very strong set design by Nigel Hook. If ever there was an example for how design can impact on a production, this is it. The set and use of props are, in themselves, vital to the smooth running of the production and are integral to the various elements that literally fall apart as the play within a play continues to go wrong.
There are elements that become an irritant rather than a delight. Some gags are too repetitive and loose their comic impact the second time around (I'm thinking about the door slam in particular). Particular sections drag slightly and in some ways the producers needn't try so hard to play for the laughs in these moments—the audience had already had their fill. The repeated script section is funny and drew delightful guffawing from the audience, but might have stopped slightly earlier, for example.
Despite this, there was enough here to keep most of the Valentine's couples entertained and in love with the opportunity for a good laugh on a wet and windy Friday night in Cardiff. This won't be everyone's choice of theatrical experience, emphasised by a few who made swift exits early-on—obviously not understanding what they had bought into.
For the most part, though, those in the audience who went to enjoy the chance to smile were not disappointed.