The Play That Goes Wrong has been a true underdog success story. The debut piece from writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Sheilds has gone from strength to strength from its first outing upstairs at The Old Red Lion Pub, Islington in 2012 – it now has pride of place in the West End and on Broadway, plus several hugely successful tours of the UK under its belt.
And before the show even officially begins, it is clear to see why.
Things are not entirely going to plan for the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, judging by the desperation of the crew running through the audience, looking for their missing canine cast member, and enlisting one poor unsuspecting soul for some urgent set maintenance. The production of the Murder Mystery “The Murder at Haversham Manor” is beset with problems from the off (some all too familiar to those of us who are involved with the “amateur” end of the arts scene), and it’s clear that this isn’t going to be the smooth running, professional production Director Chris Bean (Jake Curran) has long dreamed of. Instead, the show descends into a disaster zone, before, quite literally, falling apart.
Anything that can go wrong inevitably does. They’re gags that could so easily get tired quickly – bits falling off the set, actors fluffing lines, people getting injured in humorous and breathtakingly silly ways – but that’s the absolute beauty of this show. Gags are fired at you faster than you can blink, yet each seems funnier than the last. Despite the relentlessness of the comedy, never once did I find myself merely having a chuckle at it – this was sustained belly laughs all the way to the end.
As a rule, I tend to find farce too ridiculous to really enjoy, but The Play That Goes Wrong is in a whole league of its own. Rather than cringing at the absurd, unhelpful decisions that usually send the plot of a farce awry, here you’re on the side of the fumbling crew of performers – feeling for them in their moments of torment while they try to hold the crumbling show together, while merrily laughing at them too.
Present are all the usual suspects from your typical Murder Mystery – the corpse (Charles Haversham/Jonathan played by Steven Rostance), the rich homeowner (Thomas Collymoore/Robert – Kazeem Tosin Amore) and his beautiful sister and fiance of the deceased (Florence Collymoore/Sandra – Elena Valentine), relative of the deceased (Cecil Haversham/Max – Bobby Hirston), the butler (Perkins/Dennis – Benjamin McMahon) and the all-important sleuth (Inspector Carter/Chris – Jake Curran). Add in the complication of the visible backstage crew (Gabriel Paul as Facebook and 80s-music obsessed Lighting and Sound Operator Trevor, and Catherine Dryden‘s shy Stage Manager Annie), a troublesome set, and props that health and safety would have nightmares about, and you have the recipe for a catastrophic performance.
It is a true ensemble piece, and without a strong, capable cast, it could genuinely go very wrong indeed. But the play is in fantastic hands. I particularly liked Curran‘s Chris Bean; he seethed with a Basil Fawlty-esque frustration as he tries to coerce his cast into something that resembles what they (probably) rehearsed, but then utterly falls apart whenever his own character is thwarted. Catherine Dryden‘s Stage Manager Annie definitely grabs the hearts of the audience with her role as a reluctant understudy, and Robert (Kazeem Tosin Amore) takes on his Murder Mystery character with the air of a man who should be at The RSC – or at least, he thinks he should be. It’s difficult to highlight the standout performances because every performance had the audience in tears of laughter. Perkins/Dennis’ mispronunciations, Cecil/Max playing up anything he did that got a laugh from the audience, Florence Collymoore/Sandra’s put on poses in ridiculous places, Trevor’s attempt at having “An Episode”… my face quite literally hurt – I can’t remember the last time I laughed that hard for that long.
This isn’t sophisticated humour – this is people being hit by things and falling over. However, it is done to such a degree of genius that I challenge anyone not to find their sides hurting at the end of it.
The Play That Goes Wrong runs until Sunday 7th January at the Royal and Derngate – the show continues their tour across the UK for the rest of 2018, do not miss your chance to see it!
The Play That Goes Wrong, Derngate Auditorium, 5th January 2018