Review – The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre

Monday 15 September 2014


Phil once had the thrill of witnessing a sofa collapsing during Shaw’s yeast infection play Candida.

He can’t remember which of the cast members proved too heavy a burden for said furniture, it could have been Deborah Kerr, Denis Quilley or Patrick Ryecart. Unlikely that it was Maureen Lipman as she played the maid and hired help generally do not get to enjoy the furnishings. It must have been a gloriously accident prone run as apparently her skirt fell off on another occasion.

But at Phil’s performance the sounds of urgent carpentry emanated through the interval curtain which rose to reveal a hastily found piece of wood replacing the missing sofa leg and a cast gingerly lowering their derrières every time they needed to perch upon it. How we giggled.

Less gigglesome was Mr Finbar Lynch perking things up accidentally in The Fastest Clock in the Universe at Hampstead by taking a spectacular tumble off the stage, stopping the show until he’d been checked over. On another occasion Dame Judi Dench dragged attention back to her key speech towards the end of Peter Shaffer’s The Gift of the Gorgon after a voice in the dark shouted “Is there a doctor in the house?” and a man was carried out unceremoniously from the back of the Royal Circle.

And not because he chose to leave, but Phil saw the first acts of both, I Can’t Sing! and They’re Playing Our Song before being sent off to the pub home at the interval. The latter saw an announcement from a dressing gown clad Tom Conti telling us they wouldn’t be playing any more songs as the safety curtain was stuck.

Camelot – starring Richard Harris – at the Apollo Victoria was performed on a stage so magnificently shiny and polished the performers skidded around all over the place as they struggled to stay vertical. Glorious compensation for an otherwise dreary evening.

Then there was a playful Glenn Close breaking the fourth wall with her tongue by sticking it out at the audience as she trooped off into the wings when the A Streetcar Named Desire stage revolve chose not to revolve; much banging ensued as technicians took about 20 minutes to get things spinning again. On the same Lyttelton stage a spectacular explosion in the closing minutes of Children of the Sun set off the fire alarm. Also at the National was the first shambolic preview of Peter Pan with flying wires tangling and pieces of scenery improvising wildly. We had been warned. Director John Caird came on stage to make an announcement before it began, informing us we were lucky to be witnessing a dress rehearsal. This was met with a disgruntled patron shouting back “Not at these prices!”. Quite so.

None of these things, of course, were meant to happen unlike the shenanigans in Mischief Theatre‘s farce The Play That Goes Wrong.

This focuses on a particularly disastrous performance of Murder at Haversham Manor by the ill-prepared Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society. The cast are (to us) extemely young, which is just as well as the athletic energy exerted by them is quite spectacular as they negotiate misplaced props, collapsing scenery and stagehands forced to stand in for injured players. Learning your lines and not bumping into the furniture is not the brief.

Set in a country house there’s a snowstorm and a dead(ish) body of Charles Haversham (Greg Tannahill) from the off. The corpse’s fiancé (Charlie Russell vamping as camply as it is possible) has been carrying on with another. Whodunnit becomes unimportant as the plot succumbs to carefully choreographed chaos. This is Noises Off lite with more than a touch of Acorn Antiques, the ‘plays’ contestants were put through in The Generation Game and a hefty nod to The Mousetrap.

Written by three of the cast members, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and Mark Bell directing to keep some sort of control of the madcap mayhem. It’s corny, preposterous, deliberately hammy and at times very funny, if a tad over-egged and over-extended. Originally at The Old Red Lion and Trafalgar Studios it was just an hour and possibly better for it, now it runs just over 2 hours including the interval.

Despite this, much of it is quite up the Whinger Alley. We chuckled frequently (and by “we”, Phil means that Andrew made a rare return to theatre for this one) occasionally dropping our guards to laugh out loud, especially at the inspector (Shields) taking notes by writing them with a set of keys on a flower vase (don’t ask us to explain), a dangerous looking head bang, a silly-but-good grandfather clock gag and Henry Lewis’ almost physically impossible bit of business with several pieces of furniture on a collapsing platform.

Above all was the hilarious Dave Hearn as Max Bennett/Cecil Haversham breaking character and grinning into the auditorium in star-struck wonder as though he’d just discovered he was on a stage in front of an audience. Sadly, Mr Hearn must now live out the rest of his acting life saddled by being rubber stamped “Whinger Approved”.

And it is worth taking your seats a bit before the show begins as there’s some daft business from the stagehands played by Rob Falconer and Nancy Wallinger and possibly a bit of audience participation. This play celebrates the (normally) unseen stagehand as much as the actors.

It looks as physically exhausting to perform as it is exhausting to watch. Most seated around us roared hysterically throughout. A friend who was there the same night complained her mouth was aching from laughing so much and this was just at the interval.

Word-of-mouth should be very good. With sensible seat prices and two shows on both Saturdays and Sundays, it seems the play will go right and might easily be around for not some inconsiderable time.

But most noteworthy was our return after the interval to hear Mr Shields greeting us all with “I am delighted so many of you returned for the second act”. We presumed this to be a personal “thank you” and believe all shows should appreciate their audience’s perseverance and incorporate this forthwith.





6 Responses to “Review – The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre”

  1. Boz Says:

    Is this review an invitation to share all the stuff that has gone base over apex in the things we’ve seen? MARV!

    Mad props to the stage hand I saw at the NT’s Lady in the Dark who came on during a complex scene, waggled a stuck bit of scenery and deftly left, without disturbing the performers.

    Even madder props to Simon Callow, whose carefully constructed paper aeroplane spectacularly unravelled itself at the climax of his speech in The Alchemist (also at the NT), forcing him to re-do it in seconds, while entertaining the audience. (I’m sure I’ve mentioned this in the comments here before.)

    The very best actors collude with the audience when things go wrong. It can lift mediocre evenings into superlative ones.

  2. johnmmorrison7 Says:

    Wish I had been there to see you dropping your guards

  3. Louise Says:

    The incident i remember is paul Scoffield falling off his penny farthing bicycle and right off the stage in Don Quixote at the Olivier in 1982. He got back on the stage, but not on the bike, he just wheeled it for the rest of the performance.

  4. Glen Morranjie Says:

    Saw the matinee on Saturday 31 January 2015. Very, very funny indeed.

  5. […] run Mischief will have three shows running in the West End and apparently the Olivier Award-winning The Play That Goes Wrong will go on tour next year and The Musical That Goes Wrong is in development. Though the cast, […]

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