The trouble with zeitgeist drama is it goes out of date rather quickly. Right now, David Hare is probably in the middle of an earnest drama about the fallout of Brexit – but is that what people want from a night at the theatre? Given the current news cycle, it increasingly feels like we’re edging ever closer to an end of days scenario (best get out the party hats and an 80s mix tape!) During dark and difficult times, comedy always proves to be the best medicine: never underestimate the enduring power of a knob gag or naked vicar hiding in a wardrobe.
This may possibly explain the success of Mischief Theatre. The company has gone from strength to strength since their debut show, The Play That Goes Wrong, was first staged in 2013. The trio at the heart of Mischief – writers and actors Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields – have created a winning blueprint of farce, slapstick and satire, and which has become a global success, playing at home, America and even Russia. Taking a cue from Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, the Mischief premise is simple: what if a group of amateur actors were oblivious to their lack of talent? What if the technical staff were similarly inept? But what if all concerned simply tried their best?
Peter Pan Goes Wrong has been around a while, though this revival is still an ideal Christmas offering. Once again, the audience are in the earnest, incompetent hands of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, who are staging JM Barrie’s much-loved story about the boy from Neverland. The cast includes ‘Dennis Tyde’ (Romayne Andrews), an actor with an appalling memory, who has to be fed his lines via cumbersome headphones. ‘Lucy Grove’ (Georgia Bradley) suffers a fatal accident in Act 1 and has to perform her pirate role in a wheelchair (and in one scene, is forced to ‘walk’ the plank). Luckily, old school thespians – and joint directors – ‘Chris Bean’ and ‘Robert Grove’ are on hand to chew the scenery, and get the narrative back on track.
Such is the level of comic detail, the cast all have fake programme CVs; there are fake sponsor ads, and even an obituary for the company’s sadly deceased crocodile, Nadia (who went berserk during a rehearsal at Cornley Polytechnic, and was tragically shot dead by Police).
There are dozens of inspired moments, many involving ‘Robert Grove’ (Oliver Senton), an actor from the bellowing Brian Blessed School. One of the best gags is almost thrown away; Grove’s audition tape accidentally plays as the audience leaves the theatre, and features a collection of hilariously offensive, and cliched regional accents. If Peter Pan doesn’t reach the delirious heights of their other shows, it’s because Mischief have set the bar so high (The Comedy about a Bank Robbery remains their masterpiece).
During the final 20 minutes, the revolving stage spins out of control, offering a jaw dropping, zoetrope-like glimpse of backstage resentments and on-stage breakdowns. Proof, if it were needed, that the creation of good comedy requires the same degree of inspiration and commitment as good drama. Highly recommended.★ ★ ★ ★ ★