12th August, 2016
It’s hard not to be won over by Mischief Theatre Company’s success story. From a group of drama graduates performing in pub theatres to (later this year) having three shows in the West End and an upcoming Broadway transfer, they are the new kings of West End comedy. We’re late to the game in seeing the hit that got them off the ground but on Friday night we joined the thousands of other audience members who have laughed in hysterics at The Play that Goes Wrong.
IGNORE THIS WAFFLE....
The basic concept is not dissimilar to Frayn’s Noises Off. It uses a framing device, in this case that of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s production of second rate Murder at Haversham Manor, to unleash havoc. The enjoyment comes from watching the play within unravel, escalating to the dizzying heights of farce. From the programme notes and the pre-show routine of getting the audience involved to every bit of the set spectacularly falling apart, the play unashamedly milks every last drop of comedy with satisfying results. Praise goes to writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields for expertly finding comedy in every corner of the set and in the pitfalls of dodgy stage acting. Yet it never feels overwrought and they have created characters each with their own niches and not just cogs in this larger game of Mousetrap.
It’s hard not to draw parallels with Noises Off and so many of the Whitehall and Aldwych farces as it has all the characteristics of a classic of the genre. Paintings fall down, doors slam, and none of the characters particularly want to be in the situation into which they’ve been thrown (although there is a surprising twist that the phone works!). But what drives the play onwards is the notion of carrying on, something which many amateur or student drama groups have experienced and enjoyed – or perhaps endured. Whereas there is a slight edge of cynicism about theatre in Noises Off, in The Play that Goes Wrong there is more of a sense that the characters, as hapless or incompetent as they might be, are doing it for the love of the theatre. This idea of carrying on is no more joyous and hilarious than when one actor accepts that a grandfather clock has stepped in for a missing actor. In fact there are many nods to the theatre, from the rickety old West End murder mystery to which The Murder at Haversham Manor aspires, to the tales of the drama group’s unsuccessful attempts at other plays.
Mark Bell’s production ensures that the laughter is continuous, and this new cast have made the roles their own. In particular, April Hughes is hilarious as Sandra, the upstaging actress better trained in dance and the 3Ts who does her best in the role of Florence. Daniel Miller’s Max is also a highlight, over gesticulating and bowing when he senses the audience’s approval. Nigel Hook’s set design is slyly clever: looking like it’s been shoddily knocked together, all I shall say is that it is extremely impressive. The stage management team also deserves a mention, led by Lucy Westnidge. It is no mean feat to achieve a production which looks like it is falling apart; in reality I imagine it has to be expertly timed from well-practiced performers and crew alike. Overall, it is a joy to experience.