Mischief Theatre is a young production company making well-recieved comedy. I saw their Lights!, Camera!, Improvise! at Edinburgh last year and although not hilarious it showed their potential. Now they have successfully transferred The Play That Goes Wrong to the Duchess theatre in the West End. An impressive feat, especially given that its run has already been extended until February 2016.
Even without having seen the company before, the sheer quantity of positive quotes emblazoned on the outside of the theatre is enough to make you enter with high anticipation. Written by and starring Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Lewis the whole production does have a spirit of madcap foolery, the cast entering into the shenanigans with glee, but it doesn’t have the amusing core that the multitude of praise implied.
The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society are putting on a 1920s murder mystery, The Murder at Haversham Manor. The action takes place in a genteel living room, a chaise longue in the centre, a fireplace to the side. Raised up on the right is a mezzanine that represents Charles’ office. Cut off in a snowstorm of delightfully lo-fi ripped up paper the visitors to this country house find a corpse and realise that one of them must be a killer. Luckily a detective makes it through the snow. But who killed Charles?
With faux-RP English accents, over-acting and mugging to the audience, the cast all add to the fun as the investigations go on. But the actual story is of little relevance, the plot not being used to great comic effect. What matters is the way the cast cope when things go wrong. And go wrong they do, from a stuck door that prevents the characters entering the room, forcing them to speak their lines off-stage, to carefully a choreographed Buster Keatonesque moment of collapsing scenery.
However farce has to be based in the possibility of things being logically possible, even if they are unlikely, otherwise the action tips over into obvious silliness. Here several occurrences are impossible to see happening in the run of a play. Perkins’ continual mispronunciation of words would have been corrected. The portrait in full view hanging above the fireplace would have been the correct one. Would a character, unable to find the note-pad he is looking for, pick up a vase of flowers and pretend that is it? Why does a character whose correct entry point is almost at the very end keep coming on stage at the wrong moment again and again?
These and other comedic aberrations have no internal logic, are jolting and reduce the pleasure. But there is much that works well, not least Perkins’ show-must-go-on attitude when he finds himself handcuffed to the chaise longue – even if that involves carrying the chaise on his back. Henry Shield’s introductions as director at the start of each act provoke genuine laughs, especially when he mentions how pleased he was there have not been casting issues for this play (unlike an earlier production when they were forced to put on Ugly and the Beast). The problems which flow from possible mishaps work well. The characters continuing to speak their lines to Sandra who has just accidentally been knocked out by a door is hilarious.
A two hour production is a lot of things going wrong, yet the audience’s laughter confirms the play is a rollicking success. But I was disappointed. That can be the trouble with high hopes.