The Play That Goes Wrong

The Play That Goes Wrong @ Leeds Grand Theatre Review

[Originally posted on On:Yorkshire Magazine:]

Having gone to University in Edinburgh I am pretty well acquainted with improvised theatre and comedy as it is a staple at the Fringe Festival as well as at the Uni’s theatres throughout the year. In my opinion, there are two main things that make an improv performance so brilliant to watch. Firstly, the audience participation: feeding the actors ideas and watching how your suggestion is played out makes you part of the performance. Secondly: the thrilling uncertainty about what will happen during the performance and that it will be a ‘one off’, never to be seen by another audience again.

Mischief Theatre is comprised of London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) graduates and began as an improvised comedy group. Whilst The Play That Goes Wrong is not an improvised performance it is certainly pulling heavily on the potential outcome of an entirely on-the-spot play – the whole thing ending in disaster! Three of the Mischief Theatre’s actors wrote the play (Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields) and it is interesting that they have based it on the experiences of being an am-dram performer and the possible pitfalls of live theatre.

The Play That Goes WrongThe plot is a play-within-a-play showing the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society putting on a performance of The Murder at Haversham Manor. This definitely adds an extra dimension and ramps up the humour as each actor’s own agenda is clear as they act their Haversham parts which only adds to the hilarity. In particular, Sandra/Florence Collymoore is desperate to have all of the attention on her in every scene and wants to look her best – cue lots of posing and beaming at the audience despite the fact her character is meant to be mourning the sudden death of her fiancé!

Even before you are in your seat you are thrown straight into the play. I was enjoying a pre-show drink in the bar and having a read of the programme when someone in a t-shirt emblazoned with ‘staff’ ran in asking if anyone had seen a “blue, three-cd set of Duran Duran’s greatest hits” lying around anywhere as it had been, ahem, misplaced. I almost got up from my seat to start looking around the tables until I realised that this was setting the tone for the rest of the performance. This stunt got the whole room talking and laughing so it was a really brilliant and unique way to start the show. Oh, and this isn’t the last time that Duran Duran’s music appears in the play but I won’t spoil the surprise.

Anyone who has been to the theatre before knows what to expect as you take your seats ahead of the start of the play (aside from the awkward shuffling-past-people-whilst-holding-drinks-and-a-coat-and-a-bag routine) – a darkened, stage empty of actors and possibly some atmospheric music. For the start of The Play That Goes Wrong we walked in to a fully lit stage and the Stage Manager desperately trying to fix the mantelpiece that had completely fallen off the wall. After attempting to sneak down a row ‘hiding’ behind the small plank of wood to enlist the help of someone from the audience the rest of the theatre goers were already (unsuccessfully!) stifling laughter.

Once the set is seemingly fixed we are properly greeted by Chris who is the director of the Polytechnic Drama Society and playes Inspector Carter in The Murder at Haversham Manor. In a bid to reassure the audience he begins with some anecdotes about the company’s previous performances to show how far they have come from less than perfect versions of almost classic plays such as Snow White and the Tall Broad Gentleman and James, Where’s Your Peach?! Needless to say, even at this early stage the audience is being geared up to laugh all night.

The whole play has a feeling of ‘the show must go on’ no matter what goes wrong on stage and this is what makes the play so brilliant as many of the scenes descend into madness as the characters try to disregard the melee unfolding on the stage. Even the opening scene starts badly due to one of the Stage Manager’s ‘repairs’ at the start meaning that the door to the room that the actors enter the stage through being stuck shut. None of the characters are able to make it onto the stage to find out who has seemingly been murdered so they deliver their lines from behind the door instead making them completely non-sensical. Saying “Oh no, his skin feels ice cold” from behind a door doesn’t quite have the same effect!

Indeed, the show does continue despite characters forgetting their lines, misplacing the props and even being knocked unconscious. Even the characters that narrowly avoid being hit in the face don’t have an easy time of it as they have to run around catching parts of the set as they fall down.

Giving the impression that the play is going horribly wrong is really quite a difficult feat. The allusion of disaster starts with the actors fluffing their lines and missing cues but is completed by the crumbling set. I wouldn’t normally focus on the actual stage a play is performed on as it usually sets the scene and not much else but the fantastic job of the set designers has to be acknowledged. At one point a balcony area starts to spectacularly collapse with two actors and a variety of furniture perched on top of it creating an impressive stunt that drew big gasps from the crowd.

Each character is hilarious and enthralling to watch for different reasons and none of them feel like minor or less significant parts. If I had to highlight a few stand-out performances favourite characters then the following would spring to mind. Inspector Carter/the Director’s exasperation at the rest of the cast and his desperate stares at them when they start to go wrong is great to watch. Perkins the butler reminded me of Fawlty Towers’ Manuel and his hopeless attempts to pronounce words correctly left me in stitches. And lastly, Florence Collymoore and Annie the Stage Manager’s rivalry simmers during the play providing lots of laughs – especially when they attempt to out-act each other with increasingly over the top outbursts.

The level of slapstick throughout the play and the genuinely hilarious portrayals of the characters reminded me of British comedy classics Fawlty Towers and Bottom. The physical theatre and slapstick exchanges in the play work tremendously well thanks to the cast’s impeccable comedy timing. This is testament to their improv experience of thinking on their feet and giving all they can in each and every performance. It is how each disaster is narrowly avoided or simply disregarded despite the audience cottoning on to the mistake that makes it so funny.

I don’t think I have ever laughed so hard at the theatre or heard so much spontaneous applause during a performance before. The Play That Goes Wrong is an example of hitting the comedy play nail square on the the head – quite literally at times during the performance! It is a great change of pace for regular theatre goers and would be the perfect performance for newbies as an introduction to the wonders of live shows.

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