The Play That Goes Wrong
Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Churchill Theatre Bromley
Sometimes it is the shows where things go wrong that stay in our memory the longest.
An otherwise entirely forgettable touring production of Roots has been fixed in my memory for over thirty years thanks to carrots.
Whilst the characters chatted away preparing the vegetables for a family meal in Wesker's kitchen sink drama, the audience were rendered deaf to the dialogue; as each chunk of carrot was chopped it rolled, painfully slowly, off the table and on to the stage where it bounced and continued to roll right over the edge—or not—as fate dictated.
The scene became dominated by the carrots and the tension that built up as we watched, rapt, anticipating in which direction the next piece might veer and how far it might go. For three decades it has remained for me a play more about root vegetables than roots.
The Play That Goes Wrong, as the name suggests, is about such mis–haps but more so. Much more so. It takes every immediately conceivable theatrical accident and, harnessing that same tension of anticipation, strings them together to make a terrifically funny entertainment.
It is from the same family as Frayn's Noises Off and, although lacking the class of it's older relative, it is nonetheless hilariously comic.
Sharing the play-within-a-play structure, the premise here—one that extends to spoof biographies in the programme—is that we are watching the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society presenting a 1920s–set murder mystery.
The Murder at Haversham Manor might be standard am–dram fare, but there is nothing amateurish in the detail of its staging within The Play That Goes Wrong.
The execution of the slapstick elements is pretty much faultless; the uniformly expert ensemble cast juggle collapsing scenery, errant props and incorrect cues as if they were born to it, and the blissful agony of watching the disasters multiply is intensified by the disbelieving perseverance of the endearingly incompetent amateur players.
The dialogue seems almost incidental in such a visual and physically rigorous show but of course the text needs to be sturdy to sustain so much action and sometimes also be funny in its own right. All credit to the writers (Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields—all three also giving excellent performances in the show) that their apparently simple plot for The Murder at Haversham Manor provides a plausible narrative on which to hang such a tightly packed and varied collection of gags.
Director Mark Bell ekes out the joy with careful pacing and a tight control over the running jokes and Nigel Hook's clever set design deserves a mention.
Dave Hearn's Max/Cecil who gesticulates literal interpretations of his lines is hilarious, as is Greg Tannahill's Jonathan/Charles. The rivalry between Charlie Russell's Sandra/Florence and Lotti Maddox' put–upon stage manager Annie has a wonderfully energetic and comic chemistry.
The Play That Goes Wrong is one in a small anthology of plays so funny I would categorise them "better than prozac"—I recommend it for your next fix.
It is now on tour; for further information and booking visit the show's web site.
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti