United Kingdom The Play That Goes Wrong: Southend Cliffs Pavilion, Essex, 3.5.2022. (JPr)
Writers – Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Original director – Mark Bell
Tour director – Sean Turner
Set Designer – Nigel Hook
Costume designer – Roberto Surace
Lighting designer – Ric Mountjoy
Sound designer – Andy Johnson
Original music – Rob Falconer
Resident director – Amy Marchant
Colin Burnicle – Chris Bean / Inspector Carter
Steven Rostance – Jonathan Harris / Charles Haversham
Kazeem Tosin Amore – Robert Grove / Thomas Colleymore
Damian James – Dennis Tyde / Perkins
Aisha Numah – Sandra Wilkinson / Florence Colleymoore
Edi De Melo – Max Bennett / Cecil Haversham & Arthur the Gardener
Beth Lilly – Annie Twilloil (Stage manager)
With Harry Boyd, Mary McGurk, Clare Noy, Gabriel Paul, and Will Taylor
The origins of this laugh-inducing play-within-a-play is fascinating and could take up this review on its own. Apparently, it was Christmas 2012 when it began life as The Murder Before Christmas from the ‘energetic improv company Mischief Theatre’ as Time Out called them. It was written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields (who appeared it in) and it seems they were inspired by Michael Green’s 1964 book The Art of Coarse Acting; with other influences being, amongst others, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean. Watching Colin Burnicle as the play’s frustrated and increasingly harassed director Chris Bean, John Cleese must have been one of them too.
The trajectory that took The Play That Goes Wrong (as it was quickly renamed) to becoming a worldwide success – including on Broadway and throughout the US, as well as being a hit in the West End, on tour in the UK and in Australia – began modestly in London at Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre where it has been suggested there were only four paying customers at the first performance. Bigger and longer it then transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall where it won Best New Comedy at the WhatsOnStage Awards before winning a Laurence Olivier Award in the same category in 2016. The rest – for Mischief Theatre – as they say (always) is history and finds them arriving now on their 2022 tour in the city of Southend-on-Sea with, as Burnicle reminded us at the curtain call, two series currently on BBC iPlayer and a visit to the Edinburgh Festival this summer.
It is easy enough to disparage Wikipedia, yet I wondered how I was going to describe The Play That Goes Wrong for those thinking about coming to see it and its entry there – and slightly amended here – really does the trick: The fictitious Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society fresh from such hits as The Lion and The Wardrobe, Cat, and James and the Peach (or James, Where’s your Peach?), is putting on a performance of The Murder at Haversham Manor – a 1920s murder mystery play, which has the right number of parts for the members available. During the performance countless disasters befall the cast, including doors sticking, props falling from the walls, and floors collapsing. The cast are seen misplacing props, forgetting lines, missing cues, breaking character, having to drink white spirit instead of whisky, mispronouncing words, stepping on fingers, being hidden in a grandfather clock, and being manhandled off the stage. One cast member is knocked unconscious, and her replacement (the group’s stage manager) refuses to yield when she returns. In another scene, an actor repeats an earlier line of dialogue, cuing the other actors to repeat the whole sequence several times, ever more frenetically. The climax has been considered a tribute to the silent comedy great Buster Keaton (and particularly a scene from his film Steamboat Bill, Jr.) when virtually …. well, I won’t spoil the ending for you if you have yet to see The Play That Goes Wrong.
I am resisting the temptation to describe my many highlights in greater detail because that could descend into a blow-by-blow account which replays of the whole show that had me laughing out loud. It is important to have some idea when you sit down in the theatre of what you are going to see because if you expect high comedy The Play That Goes Wrong will not be for you. The reaction of ‘director’ Chris Bean (playing Inspector Carter, played by Colin Burnicle!) to someone calling out from the audience about a mislaid prop sums it all up. Channelling Basil Fawlty in his total exasperation at all the mayhem around him he cries out ‘This isn’t a pantomime!’, no prize for guessing the response to that? Just as funny is when those on stage fall silent as they try to work out how to overcome the latest mishap and they hold the audience in the palms of their talented hands as we hold our collective breaths waiting to see what will happen next. Look out for Aisha Numah (Sandra) and Beth Lilly (Annie, the stage manager) compete for the role of Florence Colleymoore with neither wanting to cede to each other and when both are counted out (!) it will be Gabriel Paul as Trevor, the hapless Duran Duran-loving lighting and sound operator who finds himself onstage, reading Florence’s lines with script in hand.
It is Trevor who welcomes you into the Cornley world as you take your seat because he announces they have lost their dog, Winston, that is supposed to appear with Arthur the Gardener and he must be told if we see it; as well as wanting everyone to look around where they are sitting for his Duran Duran CD box set that has also gone missing. Soon a fixture on the set needs an extra pair of hands and an audience member is recruited to help Trevor and Annie before the show begins. The fate of Winston remains unsolved, though we will hear a snatch of Duran Duran!
The cast features performers both new and returning to The Play That Goes Wrong with Steven Rostance (Jonathan Harris), Kazeem Tosin Amore (Robert Grove), Damien James (Dennis Tyde), Edi De Melo (Max Bennett) amongst those not previous named. I have nothing but praise for all of them who – with boundless energy – have slipped seamlessly into parts played by other in previous incarnations of The Play That Goes Wrong. Their verbal dexterity and the timing of their physical comedy is uniformly remarkable and some of the gymnastic stunts are worthy of Michael Crawford’s legendary ones as Frank Spencer (yet another influence?) in BBC TV’s Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. I suspect many of those you are watching have had circus training and it takes great skill to make the slapstick seem so effortless and the acting quite so ‘bad’ (but in a good way).
If you have never seen The Play That Goes Wrong, I strongly urge you too.
For more about The Play That Goes Wrong on its current UK tour and elsewhere click here.