Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 1
‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ has had one of the best publicity campaigns I’ve ever seen in theatre. With upside-down adverts, misspellings in newspaper listings and punctuation mistakes on the cast list, it couldn’t help but draw your attention. Marketed as ‘just as funny as ‘Noises Off’ – literally the funniest play I have ever seen – I went along to the Duchess Theatre with a mixture of eager anticipation and terrible dread that it just wouldn’t, couldn’t live up to all the hype.
The comedy starts from the moment you enter the theatre; a harassed techie and over-confident looking actors run or stroll about the stalls, talking to the audience and searching (somewhat frantically) for a Duran Duran CD. Pieces offset and props are still being fixed onto the stage – and of course, the stage manager is already having problems. As soon as the first shelf hits the floor, one can tell exactly how slapstick the play will become.
And I really mean serious slapstick: this is like ‘Fawlty Towers’ on crack. I don’t think one single element of Nigel Hook’s fantastic set remains upright by the end of the performance; and the most amazing thing is that it all falls or stays up at exactly the right time. I have no idea how they do it, but everything looks like an absolute shambles and yet is obviously so perfectly and carefully orchestrated. This is basically reflective of the whole play, actually.
The real action starts with a long welcome speech-cum-apology from Chris, the hapless director of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, played brilliantly by Henry Shields. The laughs start rolling in as he lists the previous, rather less-than-successful productions of this dramatic company; cast shortages gave them “The Lion and the Wardrobe” and “Cat”, whilst difficulties with props led them to: “James and the Peach” and later “James: Where’s my Peach?” A key strength of this play is how quickly they establish that this might have a lot of slapstick humour in it, but there are also some great intelligent, witty gags in there as well. Chris himself is a great character; trying to play the detective with great aplomb despite being gaped gormlessly at by his other, helpless actors, whenever anything goes wrong, we witness his painfully funny breakdown on stage – so agonising, and yet so comical as well.
The other actors are equally hilarious. It’s clear how comfortable they all are being funny in each other’s company – as I found out afterwards in a Q&A, almost all of them attended the same improv. club together, which definitely makes an impact. Although all of them are great, I did have two particular favourites: Dave Hearn as Max was so beautifully naïve – every time the audience clapped or laughed at his part, he would turn to them and smile a lopsided, beatific grin, and even start applauding himself at some points. Max was really a prime example for why the ridiculous characters in this play worked; they are totally incompetent but also somehow loveable, and all with some sort of basis in reality.
Nancy Wallinger as Annie, the nervous Stage Manager, was also very amusing, particularly at the beginning, although it was funny to see her and Sandra (a melodramatic Charlie Russell) fight it out more and more violently to be the leading lady towards the end. And it was an excellent touch that Rob Falconer as Trevor, the long-suffering Techie, had his ‘tech area’ (if that’s what you’d call it?!) visible to the audience the whole time; watching his head-in-hands reactions to everything that happened made everything just that little bit funnier.
The pace of this production is extraordinary, and the amount of energy expended by each and every actor (even including Greg Tannahill, playing the dead body!) is that of a million Duracell bunnies. In fact, after laughing so hard for so long, I think even the audience feel they’ve been for a work-out after seeing ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’. Sometimes the jokes are repeated perhaps once too often, but overall this is farce at its finest. It could never quite live up to ‘Noises Off’ for me, but it came pretty damn close.
‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ at Duchess Theatre: 4/5 stars