Mischief Theatre, formed by a group of graduates from The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) have created an enviably lucrative franchise over the past decade. The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is currently running in the West End and about to tour; they are also taking their improvised Mischief Movie Night on the road; and their versions of Peter Pan and A Christmas Carol have migrated from the stage to television.
Meanwhile, the extensive UK tour of the piece which kick-started their success, The Play That Goes Wrong, takes place while it is also enjoying long runs in London (where it won the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy) and on Broadway.
The basic idea is deceptively simple – The Play That Goes Wrong does what it says on the tin. As we all know, bad theatre is usually more distressing than funny; the company’s success, however, has come through exploiting the backstage comedy genre’s potential for mocking the sometimes inflated egos of practitioners, as well as making use of classic slapstick techniques.
In contrast with other notable examples of the theatrical comedy with a theatrical backdrop – Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, or Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus Of Disapproval – the focus of writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields is the stage itself rather than shenanigans in the wings or beyond.
The action begins, however, in the foyer, with members of the production’s fictional crew wandering about, asking the gathered punters’ help in locating a runaway dog (whose significance becomes clear later on). And, as we take our seats, they are still putting the finishing touches to the set, with assistance from a brave audience-member.
After this embarrassing false start, we are welcomed by the director to The Cornley Polytechnic Society’s production of 1920s mystery The Murder at Haversham Manor, which he sincerely hopes will run more smoothly than their previous efforts (e.g. James And The Peach).
The action of the play on which we are meant to be focusing takes place in the palatial residence of Charles Haversham, whose dead body is discovered in his rooms, on the eve of his engagement party, by his good friend, Thomas Colleymore. The news of his murder is met with apparent dismay by Florence (Charles’ fiancée and Thomas’ sister); Charles’ untrustworthy brother Cecil; and devoted butler Perkins. It is up to Inspector Carter to uncover the truth behind this heinous act.
Our progress towards the solution of the mystery is impeded by a vast number of mishaps, involving non-functional props, inept and intrusive technical staff, a collapsing stage set, and actors who are variously clumsy, under-prepared, overly fond of audience approbation, illiterate or, through no fault of their own, unconscious.
The cast – Catherine Dryden, Bobby Hirston, Liam Horrigan, Benjamin McMahon, Gabriel Paul, Steven Rostance, Kazeem Tosin Amore, and Elena Valentine – all rise well to the tricky task of pretending to be bad at their jobs, under the mathematically precise and comedically on-point direction of Mark Bell.
The true star of the evening, though, is Nigel Hook, on whose ingenious, subtly spectacular (and Tony Award-winning) split-level set design the entire faux-shambolic enterprise hangs.
There are a few flaws – some of the gags are repetitive, and surely even the most naïve student director would clamp down on his/her actors’ tendency towards exaggerated gesticulation. Still, in terms of jokes, the hit-rate is high; the near-capacity audience was chuckling throughout, and sometimes even guffawing.
If The Play That Goes Wrong is about anything, it’s about the seductiveness of the performing bug, even amongst those who really have no business being on a stage. Mischief Theatre’s facetious but affectionate take on theatricality is very clever and very funny.
New Theatre Cardiff, until 5th May