The Play That Goes Wrong
Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Kenny Wax Ltd & Stage Presence Ltd present a Mischief Production
The Opera House, Manchester
If, as the saying goes, comedy is hard, then physical comedy is really hard. Physical comedians have to pull off pratfalls and stunts that look dangerous in such a manner as to reassure the audience there is no real risk of harm, so the gags are funny not traumatic. Still, if anyone can achieve this difficult balance it must be the original cast of The Play That Goes Wrong returning to their roles in Manchester and Newcastle. The production is so slick and carefully rehearsed you can spot the single occasion someone genuinely trips over a prop.
The audience at Manchester’s Opera House greets Mischief Theatre like returning heroes. Indeed, the reception is so raucous, Henry Shields assumes headmaster mode and threatens to start the show from the beginning unless the audience treats the play with due respect and shuts up: "Why can’t you behave like this woman? In 45 minutes, she hasn’t smiled once."
The Play That Goes Wrong, written by three members of the cast, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, pays tribute to the much-maligned amateur dramatics genre. The characters are firmly of the opinion if they look away or hide their faces, the audience will not notice them interrupting the play. There is the absolute belief the show must go on even if props are crashing down, characters enter at the wrong moment, words are mispronounced to the point of incoherence or a key line is forgotten resulting in a scene being repeated on a loop.
The Cornley Drama Society stages a traditional murder mystery, but things do not go well from the start—the cast wander through the audience seeking a missing dog and a patron has to be persuaded to help out setting up the stage. As the show progresses, the stage set begins to fall apart and cast members become incapacitated resulting in stagehands being pressed into performing. Yet the the Cornley players remain dedicated to their craft despite adversity.
By now, the format of the play should be so over-familiar as to become stale. It has, after all, inspired the television series The Goes Wrong Show so even non-theatregoers will be in on the joke. The advantage of a full-length play over a half-hour show is, however, the humour has more time to develop. The first act essentially sets the groundwork and is hilarious, but the second act, with the characters becoming increasingly desperate, the situations more extreme and Nigel Hook’s set gradually falling apart, is pure comedy gold.
The single element which ensures the success of The Play That Goes Wrong is that the characters are all likeable. Certainly, they are flawed—Dave Hearn’s acting as Max, all dramatic posing and grand gestures, is appalling and Henry Shields’s hapless director is something of an egotist. The atmosphere is one of innocence; all of the characters are trying hard to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and their efforts and dedication are so endearing you want them to succeed. Rather than mocking the efforts of Cornley Drama Society, the audience is cheering them on—literally on occasion. The 'can-do' spirit of the players is so high, there is the impression if they were running the country we would be in a better state—or at least having a lot more fun.
The current production of The Play That Goes Wrong becomes a celebration, and it is hard to think of another show at present which better deserves such a tribute.
Reviewer: David Cunningham