Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields of London’s Mischief Theatre, THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is a hysterical loving bouquet to the world of amateur theatre and what can go wrong; a succession of missed cues, lost dogs and props, slapstick, the drinking of turps instead of whiskey,pratfalls, ‘drying’, squashed hands, mangled lines, missed cues, revolving doors, fake snow and melodramatic red lighting.
The play’s conceit is based on the attempts of the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society to perform the 1920s murder mystery The Murder at Haversham Manor.
Even before the show officially begins there are problems. On stage, the crew is trying to tape the mantelpiece back to the wall, with help from an audience member.
Lights go up and we discover Charles, heir of a wealthy family, lying ‘dead‘ on the chaise longue. Almost everyone is a suspect: Charles’ passionate fiance, his old school friend, his cantankerous brother, even Perkins the apparently faithful employee.
The show’s set remains a major issue; the doors become dangerous, props take on lives of their own, the top level set slides and the question of solving the whodunit becomes a relatively minor drama.Are the cast able to complete the play alive and in a dignified manner? The climax is a tribute to a scene in Buster Keaton’s film Steamboat Bill,Jr. (1928).
Like Nunsense or The Producers this show has the audience in fits of hysterical laughter. The show is similar in genre to Noises Off, The Real Inspector Hound, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and Monty Python. During the show there are also allusions to The Mousetrap and Phantom of the Opera.
What brings underlying tension to the Society’s performance is the actors’ sheer persistence and determination that Murder at Haversham Manor will proceed without any deviations or interruptions. Improvised efforts to cover errors lead to further problems and mistakes. The cast’s inability to pick up correct cues also results in confusion and misunderstandings.
A favourite scene has an almost impossible acrobatic human chain that stretches across the stage from one side to the other so that a character can take a telephone call, and move the action forward, is so exquisitely coordinated it has the audience cheering.
You can’t but admire the incredible energy of the cast or their superb comic timing full of delicious detail. It is rigorously plotted and choreographed and is extremely demanding.
Nick Simpson-Deeks plays multiple roles. He is Lermontov like in the role of stressed director Chris Bean and excellent in the imposing role of Inspector Carter.
Brooke Satchwell as sultry leading lady Sandra Wilkinson blends posturing with hammy acting, full of languid narcissism. Sandra gives as good as she gets when fighting stage manager Annie for her role in a hilarious catfight.
Luke Joslin, also playing multiple roles, is great as the pompous Robert Groven and as Thomas Collynore, wearing olive green plus fours, a character who spends most of Act II clinging to the sliding wreckage of the set.
Vibrant yet restrained George Kemp as Dennis Tyde is delightful as the turps-dispensing butler Perkins.
As Charles, Darcy Brown has much fun ‘playing possum’ with hilarious ghost like exits and appearances.
James Marlowe, excellently understatedly playing the dismal actor ,cleverly anchors one of the show’s most farcical set pieces when his Society character Max repeats a line that triggers a what feels like infinite loop.
Adam Dunn as Trevor, the lighting and sound technical guy and huge Duran Duran fan, becomes heavily involved in the action.
Designer Jason Bovaird has marvellously relit the show for its Australian and brings a sumptuous richness to the various aspects of the of the eventually disintegrating Haversham Manor set.
Roberto Surace‘s costume designs delightfully reflect the limited reserves and inventiveness of the Society.
Lurking in Nigel Hook’s set design are multiple hidden tricks that are revealed during the performance.
Silly, daft and exuberantly funny THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is a glorious night out. The show is playing the Roslyn Packer Theatre until April 23 and then continues on its national tour.
Running time 2 hours including interval