After drinking and spitting out scotch (read: paint thinner) for the fourth time, Thomas Colleymoore (Robert Grove) shouts—for the fourth time—“Good God! I needed that.” It seems that The Play That Goes Wrong is just what the audience needed. A chance to laugh, even guffaw, at a show that’s equal parts smart and idiotic.
From the very start, The Play That Goes Wrong is fully committed to the joke. The show bill’s cover is printed wrong, so the text doesn’t even fit on the page. As the audience files into their seats, Annie Twilloil and Trevor Watson, “stage manager” and “lighting & sound operator” respectively, bustle around the set. It appears that the crew didn’t have enough time to finish setting up the scenery—a large room centered on a couch, with a mantel offset to one side and another room perched above in the corner. Things break as they fix them (the mantelpiece simply won’t stay on and the crew gets frustrated and forgoes it entirely). Watson has an entire Buster Keaton-esque bit with the unruly door that won’t stay closed, no matter how many times he shuts it. For those audience members who know what’s going on—or for those who got to their seats early—this rigmarole is a very entertaining way to wait for the play to actually begin. And watch closely; the unruly set decorations giving Twilloil and Watson grief don’t stop just because The Play That Goes Wrong starts.
The show, created by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields in 2012, begins with an address to the audience. The Director (Chris Bean) steps almost into the spotlight to introduce the Drama Society’s new show, The Murder at Haversham Manor. He is glad that the society finally has a show that fits its meager cast size—past shows included Chekhov’s Two Sisters and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cat. With this introduction, the Director leaves the stage, and the lights dim.
Newcomers to The Play That Goes Wrong cannot imagine what is in store for them. The show is already funny, and it hasn’t even officially started.
When the lights too quickly return, one cast member is revealed to be crawling his way to his mark. At this point, the audience is already warm, so it takes nothing more than that to get a large laugh—and it’s the first of countless. The lights go dark again, allowing the actor to make his mark—lying “dead” on the couch. The deceased is none other than the eponymous Charles Haversham (Jonathan Harris). His body is quickly discovered by the other characters—although not too quickly, as his friend Colleymoore (Grove) and his butler Perkins (Dennis Tyde) can’t open the door that wouldn’t stay shut. After getting fed up with this, the actors walk around the set wall and quickly swing back the curtain before pretending that nothing was wrong. They determine that Haversham is indeed dead—after stepping on the actor’s hand, causing him to jump in pain.
The rest of the characters are quickly brought up to speed—his fiancee Florence Colleymoore (Sandra Wilkinson) is unbelievably crushed by the news. It’s simply not believable how “devastated” she is, as she gyrates back and forth on the body in one of her “episodes.” Cecil Haversham (Max Bennett), brother of the deceased, is equally distraught. When Inspector Carter (Bean) is called, the murder mystery begins.
The ensuing show is a mishmash of missed cues, character breaks, slapstick comedy, and general absurdity that results in a wonderfully funny and entertaining show. Jokes are played over and over again for greater and greater laughs, scenes that would derail any real play are stretched into hilarity, and the pratfalls, fake injuries, and bad effects are hammed up for the bit.
While the cast members are each and every one hysterical, the star of The Play That Goes Wrong is the set. Perfectly timed breaking objects or falling wall ornaments add percussive beats to the right moments. The lack of proper set safety allows the actors to run about the stage at will, falling over themselves under pretenses of being injured. The actors play off the set, shooting it dirty looks or resigned sighs of contempt as nothing goes right. The set is The Play That Goes Wrong’s primary antagonist. While the actors fight each other, the laughably cheesy dialogue, and their own inability to remember their lines, they battle the set. And usually, the set wins.
The show is tremendously engaging and funny, nearly an Abbott and Costello bit with more zaniness. The loss of true slapstick in much of today’s comedy is not felt here. The only thing missing might be a banana peel for a character to slip on—or perhaps that iconic piano score that slapstick movies play when the characters run around at too-fast speeds.