The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess Theatre was the perfect antidote to the January blues earlier this year. It was a funny, fast paced comedy with exuberant high-energy performances from the cast. As with all good farces, the catastrophes on stage piled up with increasing chaos, belying the play’s tight structure and the cast’s impeccable timing. I love a good farce (ooh matron) so this production tickled my funny bones in all the right places (fnar).
In this ‘play within a play’ the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society are performing ‘Murder at Haversham Manor’, a 1920s whodunnit with nods to Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mousetrap’. The audience is complicit from the beginning, as the stage manager tries to fix last minute glitches before curtain up. An unsuspecting member of the audience is persuaded on stage to ‘help’, unwittingly causing more harm than good which sets the tone for what is to come.
After a prologue from Chris Bean, the increasingly desperate driving force behind the drama society’s productions, the play begins and, as the title suggests, everything, erm, goes wrong. Props go missing, lines are forgotten and/or repeated in excruciating deja vu, actors are electrocuted, inadvertently drink white spirits, and experience many forms of physical damage and/or humiliation, the set falls apart before our very eyes. Fawlty-style meltdowns ensue in the midst of glorious mayhem.
I’ve read some reviews online which compare this play unfavourably to Michael Frayn’s ‘Noises Off’, suggesting it is a poor imitation and cannot hope to reach the farcical heights reached by Frayn*. This seems a bit mean-spirited to me – of course Frayn is in a league of his own and virtually impossible to better, but with so much gloom in the real world there is surely room for another funny, frantic ‘play within a play’ production in the West End and beyond. Especially when it is performed with such verve and committed silliness by an energetic cast and received with such joy and enthusiasm by the audience.
Kudos is due to the Mischief Theatre improv company, who originated the material and have taken it from the Old Red Lion Theatre to the heart of the West End. Writers, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, also perform and the production is zippily directed by Mark Bell. The set design by Nigel Hook is ostensibly a conventional country house drawing room but, as soon becomes clear, it is nothing less than a death trap for the hapless actors. The final scene with its homage to Buster Keaton’s famous stunt in ‘Steamboat Bill Jr’ literally brings the house down.
The whoops and cheers from the audience at the curtain call were a testament to the success of this unashamed crowd pleaser and it would have a been a stony-hearted individual indeed who left the theatre less buoyant than when they went in…
*I’ve seen two productions of ‘Noises Off’ which my Throwback Theatre blog will get to eventually!