The Play That Goes Wrong stops off at Leeds Grand Theatre this week as part of a national tour. As its title suggests, the show runs anything but smoothly and promises audiences a white-knuckle ride of mishaps and calamity.
The play in question is The Murder at Haversham Manor, a worthy mystery sloppily staged with misguided grandeur by the Cornley Polytechnic Society. When Charles Haversham’s prone body is discovered, a web of intrigue is sewn amongst the inhabitants of the stately home. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen; unfortunately Cornley Polytech’s funding is limited and their cast somewhat over-tired and under-rehearsed. What could possibly go wrong?
A dense study of all the technical and artistic pitfalls of live performance, The Play That Goes Wrong draws instant comparison to Noises Off in regards to its subject and execution. The premise is that of an unfolding disaster, desperately masked by the performers on stage. What sets this production apart from its well-known predecessor is an attempt to keep the backstage workings mostly hidden, telling its story purely through the actions of the performers in real time.
Not only is the play a wonderful farce, but it’s also a sharp parody of amateur theatre, school productions and – most devilishly – a back-handed salute to the unrelenting pap of Agatha Christie. Nigel Hook’s set is a shoddy masterpiece of austerity, bearing more than a passing resemblance to The Mousetrap’s dreary staging, whilst the production’s pool of formulaic characters, ranging from dignitaries, gardeners and inspectors, have been cribbed straight from any one of Christie’s tedious novels.
Much of the show’s success stems from the small creative team at its core, three whom co-wrote and well as star in the play. The production’s meticulous workshopping is evident and reflected in the seamless mechanics of ensuing farce. Performed and executed to Chaplin and Keaton standards, fans of the genre will be impressed by the show’s complex engineering whilst the uninitiated will no doubt be surprised by the unrelenting pace and physicality which farce of this standard demands.
Casting is wholly excellent. Co-author Henry Shields is instantly warming as the withering and tragicomic Chris Bean, director of the society. Co-author Henry Lewis is equally superb as bombastic thespian Robert, whilst Jonathan Sayer, the third literary hand in the show, is excruciatingly funny as the illiterate Dennis – an actor whose vocabulary barely stretches beyond two syllables. Charlie Russell is deliciously meretricious as the tarty Sandra, pushing the concept of upstaging to new heights of tastelessness. Dave Hearn’s goofy Max is endearing and charmingly funny as an actor constantly distracted by his audience, whilst Rob Falconer and Nancy Wallinger are the perfect embodiments of downbeat backstage technicians. Greg Tannahill’s forlorn Jonathan deserves additional credit for stealing scenes as a continually trampled and abused corpse.
Whilst The Play That Goes Wrong has broad appeal, it will no doubt prove exceptionally rewarding to regular theatre-goers and those involved in the industry. A love letter to the chaos of live performance, it is uplifting, outrageous and heart-stoppingly dangerous. Brimming full of stunts and pratfalls, buttressed with hilarious dialogue, The Play That Goes Wrong is a visceral assault on its audience with a relentless, expansive energy. A meticulous mess of choreographed chaos, this is a shoddy masterpiece which should not be missed.