Theater Review: ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ Continues to Go Right

By Jonathan Spira on 18 September 2017
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After what seemed like unending last-minute repair work to the set, a man with a posh accent spoke to the audience while simultaneously missing the spotlight. “Firstly, I would like to apologise to those of you involved in our little box-office mix-up,” he started. “I do hope the six hundred and seventeen of you affected will enjoy our little murder mystery just as much as you would have enjoyed… ‘Hamilton.’ ”

But chaos had already ensued in the orchestra section as ushers and cast members wandered about looking and calling for Winston, who the audience does not yet know is an invisible dog, while stagehands attempted to fix the fireplace’s mantel and even strove to enlist the help of a theatergoer to hold it in place.

What we were seeing here was “The Play That Goes Wrong,” which premiered above Islington’s Old Red Lion pub theatre in 2013. Reportedly, four people paid to see it. I first saw “The Play” in 2015, where my takeaway was “Never have so many laughed so hard for so long,” and enjoyed its madcap goings-on again after it crossed the pond to the Great White Way and opened in April at the Lyceum Theatre, where the audience reaction was similar.

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Now seeing it for a third time, even though I was familiar with the many calamities that would befall both cast and stage, I joined the audience in laughing from the search for Winston until the final curtain. While much of it was as in the original production, it soon became clear that there was fresh material in it as well.

As one of the show’s producer, Mark Bentley, explained to me in London, the play’s three creators, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, channeled their inner Buster Keaton, to which sentiment I’d add Lucille Ball with a touch of Dick Van Dyke. Once the pretentious production of Susie H. K. Brideswell’s “Murder at Haversham Manor” by the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society starts, everything begins to fall apart, much to the audience’s delight. Indeed, the night I attended at the performance at the Duchess Theatre, I asked Mr. Bentley whether I could photograph the cast on the set after the performance. “I don’t think the set will really be suitable for that after the performance,” he responded wryly.

(For the curious, past productions by the Society suffered from severe budget constrains, resulting in the renaming of several shows including “Two Sisters,” “The Lion and the Wardrobe,” and (best of all) “Cat.”)

While the performance is intended to look completely inept, “The Play That Goes Wrong” is an intricately choreographed train wreck with hapless thespians, mistimed sound effects, and bungled lines, a show where doors refuse to close, a corpse refuses to stay put, and the entire set, a period drawing room by Nigel Hook, is destined to break into pieces.

Pay attention as the actors, in particular Perkins, the butler, do an excellent job of mangling the Queen’s English. My two favorite Perkinisms are “cayennidday” for cyanide and “manahgrammed” for monogrammed.

Many shows crossing the pond reinvent themselves for what the show’s producers perceive a Broadway audience would want to see. With the exception of a few nods to the location (for example, “Please turn off your mobile, ahem, cell phones…”), the show remains true to its roots, although there is no poster advising theatergoers that Tom Cruise will not be appearing that evening.

(Photos: Accura Media Group)

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