Shows about bad acting are nothing new. Tom Stoppard’s Real Inspector Hound probably got there first, closely followed by Michael Green’s Art of Coarse Acting, and later Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s enduring farce within a farce. The irony is that it takes exceptional comic actors to pull this off successfully. I once saw Sylvester McCoy appear in a touring production of Noises Off; his OTT gurning, and all round hamminess was painful to watch.
Mischief Theatre, following in Stoppard, Green and Frayn’s footsteps, have enjoyed huge success with a series of shows supposedly produced by the ‘Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’: Peter Pan Goes Wrong, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, and – best of all – The Play That Goes Wrong, which has won numerous awards since its 2015 premiere. What makes the core writing team of Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields a unique proposition, is their gift for comic invention, particularly slapstick. The company are now international players, with Mischief shows having been performed in over 40 countries worldwide.
So successful in fact, there’s now an A, and a B Team. I was expecting the latter on this occasion, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover this touring production features the original cast of Lewis, Sayer, and Shields, alongside Rob Falconer, Dave Hearn, Charlie Russell, Greg Tannahill and Nancy Zamit (most of whom featured in both series of the BBC Goes Wrong Show.)
The Play That Goes Wrong is a critic proof show. Is there any point writing a review? Just listen to the euphoric response from the audience; even the cast were taken aback on opening night, Henry Shields breaking character at the end to declare ‘you’re the most enthusiastic bunch we’ve ever played before.’ Clearly some audience members were already converts, and eager to join in. ‘Just leave it!’ called an excitable young girl in the circle, as cheery bungler, Max (Dave Hearn) attempted to pick up the earpiece of a phone with his foot (he was busy with his hands, holding up a falling painting).
For those who’ve yet to discover what the fuss is about, the premise is simple. On this occasion, Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is producing ‘classic’ whodunit, ‘Murder at Haversham Manor.’ All the characters have a back story, as indicated in the fake programme: i.e., murder victim Charles Haversham is played by ‘Jonathan Harris’ (and ‘Jonathan Harris’ is played by Greg Tannahill – confusing, I know). It’s this level of detail which elevates the show to the premier league. All these ‘actors’ are inadequate in different ways. For example, the black spot of ‘Dennis Tyde’ is cue lines, evident in one of the best scenes, with the cast trapped in an interminable loop, repeating one section over and over, and growing increasingly hysterical.
The contribution of director Mark Bell (who trained at the famed Jaques Lecoq mime school in Paris) shouldn’t be underestimated: Events move at a frantic pace, with the actors possibly in danger of whiplash. It’s impossible to list every highlight but I particularly enjoyed the performance face-off between Charlie Russell – knocked unconscious in Act 1 – and stage manager Nancy Zamit, forced to stand in, and read lines from the book; her initial awkwardness slowly replaced by a giddy confidence. When Russell later returns, Zamit refuses to give up a role which now has her name on it, resulting in a violent battle for ownership. It’s easy to see the fetching Russell (due her first solo show at this year’s Edinburgh Festival) becoming a sort of Mischief pin-up; during act two, in classic farce tradition, she wears only a silky nightdress. ‘I really like her!’ gurgled a hormonal teenage boy sat on the row behind me. Indeed.
Great to see so many children and young folk laughing uncontrollably at this inspired silliness. For some, The Play That Goes Wrong, will prove a gateway drug to slapstick, and earlier comedy heroes like Buster Keaton. Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy. For Mischief Theatre, that’s probably the highest compliment of all.