The Play That Went Wrong is a relentlessly inventive, immaculately choreographed farce.
For the first time ever, I have to begin a review with a health warning: please don’t try drinking white spirit, and don’t (for a joke) put it in anybody else’s drink, either. Government advice, in the event of (accidentally) imbibing white spirit, is to seek immediate medical attention. We move on…
Next, a bit of “housekeeping” – social distancing is gone, the wearing of masks is now optional, even in the auditorium (I wore mine). Please also be aware that The Play That Goes Wrong attracts a young audience (with all that might entail about mask-wearing and vaccination status).
As with the early life of Richard O’Brien’s musical phenomenon, The Rocky Horror Show, developed in the Royal Court (Upstairs) in 1973, it’s tempting to wonder if LAMDA buddies, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields had any inkling of what they were about to unleash, when they launched the premiere of The Play That Goes Wrong in the renowned 60-seater London Fringe venue that is the Old Red Lion.
As well as having set down roots in the West End since 2014, the play has had a Broadway run and been performed in 20 other countries. Mischief Productions, with Lewis, Sayer and Shields at the heart, have also turned the idea into a successful franchise. You might have seen seasonal spin-offs, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and Christmas Carol Goes Wrong, and the Lowry will soon host Groan Ups (23-28 August) and their piece worked up in collaboration with Penn and Teller, Magic Goes Wrong.
The idea is simple, but brilliantly executed: a student production of a murder mystery in which everything imaginable (and some things barely imaginable) goes wrong.
As we take our seats, the curtain is already up on the set – a private study in an English country house. All is not well even before the play begins. Stage Manager, Annie Twilloil (Laura Kirkman) is searching for Winston, a French Bulldog, crucial to the action, who’s gone AWOL. Meanwhile, Techie Trevor (Gabriel Paul) is preoccupied trying to recover his missing Duran Duran CDs. Before either of these problems is resolved, Chris (Tom Bulpett) takes centre stage to welcome us to tonight’s performance. Not only will Chris be playing the key role of Inspector Carter, this evening is also his directorial “dayboo.” We wish him luck, knowing full well he isn’t going to have any.
Props and tech are already playing up (and falling down), and which idiot left that can of white spirit on stage? What if it ends up being drunk instead of stage prop “whisky”?
Enter the body, furtively, to stretch out and play dead on the chaise longue. Unfortunately, the victim, Charles Haversham (played by Sean Carey playing Jonathan Harris, if you follow me) selects a death pose with his arm outstretched and his hand on the floor – ideal for being stepped on by those who discover the body (not an easy discovery, given the study door is not just locked, but jammed shut). This is surely not the first ‘wincing corpse’ in theatre history, but it has to be one of the funniest.
From there on in, it’s all missed cues, bumbled lines and magnificently collapsing props for the next two hours (there is an interval to catch your breath). The slapstick is marvellous but the characterisations are also key to the comedy.
Butler Perkins (Benjamin McMahon) is played by Dennis, who lives with his parents, not in halls, joined the drama society to make friends and struggles to pronounce big words. The victim’s fiancée, Florence Collymore (April Hughes as local vamp, Sandra) is determined to sex it up (her emotional “episodes” performed like comic burlesque). Newcomer Max (Tom Babbage) who’s funding this production from his inheritance, cavorts, contorts and mugs in the manner of a young John Cleese. Later on, with Florence indisposed (laid out cold, after a door is slammed in her face), Annie is called on to understudy. At first shy and reluctant, she soon becomes dead set on not allowing the recovered Sandra back on stage (their increasingly violent feud is a highlight of the final scenes). Not to be left out, Florence’s controlling brother, Thomas (Leonard Cook playing the “Stanislavsky” student, Robert) engages in escalating warfare with props and set alike.
The fourth wall is regularly broken to good effect. I particularly liked Chris’s reprimand to the audience:
“I know you haven’t been to the theatre in a while, but there are rules: you shut up; I talk!”
As with all exceptional farces, there are moments bordering on the absurd (watch out for medication being offered to the grandfather clock). As for the plot, allow me to borrow an exchange from the script:
“Let me explain.”
“I don’t think you can.”
The humorous programme notes contain a nod to local colour, when we learn that Annie Twilloil “will begin an internship at the Bolton Octagon later this month.” How blessed we are.
The Play That Goes Wrong is a relentlessly inventive, immaculately choreographed farce. Several of the routines are so complex, yet so adroitly accomplished, they draw spontaneous rounds of applause. The young audience gives the entire cast a wild and joyful standing ovation.
Go see it. Just lay off the white spirit.