‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ review – Calamitous, confounding comedy delights in ninth West End year


The real mystery behind Murder at Haversham Manor by the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society (that is, the play-within-a-play in Mischief Theatre’s The Play That Goes Wrong) is how a company of professional actors – many of whom make their West End debuts – can make organised chaos and ineptitude look so natural and organic. Now in its ninth year, The Play That Goes Wrong continues to thrill audiences as a fantastic, farcical feat.

The murder mystery surrounds the death of Charles Havesham (Luke Dayhill), and there’s a classic cohort of characters who could be a suspect. Perkins (Keith Ramsay) is the typically peculiar butler; Florence Colleymore (played by Lucy Doyle and, later, Iona Fraser) is Charles’ melodramatic fiancée; there’s Charles’ bubbly brother Cecil (Ross Virgo) and Charles’ old mate and Florence’s brother Thomas Colleymore (Rolan Bell).

Getting to the bottom of the whodunnit is Inspector Carter (Daniel Cech-Lucas, who also plays the production’s director Chris), and sorting out the lights and sound is the Duran Duran-loving Trevor (Gavin Dunn) in a box in the corner of the circle. So many characters, so many opportunities for things to go wrong.

It also poses a significant challenge for director Mark Bell, in that there are many areas of Nigel Hook’s meticulously designed set which warrant our attention in rapid succession when interacted with by a number of characters. Often, this is determined by whatever calamity is the loudest, which isn’t exactly the best factor to guide our focus – especially not when a good number of the mishaps pertain to shouty arguments between the cast. It should be paced with precision, but when you’ve already reached a noisy climax, any further cacophony on top of that starts getting jarring and indistinguishable.

A good example of where this falters is just near the end of Act One, when the play falls into a state of anarchy where it seems the show cannot go on due to being broken beyond repair. Going to an interval here would truly generate suspense, and have us all wondering how on earth the Cornley crew will get everything fixed for Act Two. Instead, it fizzles out to a slightly confusing altercation over lines which is as much a fault pertaining to Bell’s direction as it is with the writing from original Mischief members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields.

The production shines (like I presume it always has over the past nine years), with its ensemble. Ramsay cleverly blends the awkwardness of Dennis forgetting his lines with the quirkiness of Perkins, Annie’s (Fraser) “episode” as Florence is outrageously funny, and Virgo charms us with his smiley, fame-hungry Max to the extent we start to want him to do well, even when we all know the circumstances very much won’t allow that to happen.

What’s just as enjoyable is watching the breakdown in the resolve of the less flamboyant characters. Inspector Carter/Chris (Cech-Lucas) and Thomas Colleymore/Robert (Bell) are more eccentric than outlandish, and so instead of goofing around like other characters, they turn out to be the last two manning the fort and trying to hold everything together – quite literally, in terms of the second act. Their downfall comes in the moment that they snap, and become completely incandescent with frustration (this is where a lot of the disorientating shouting comes in). In contrast to this, the loosening up of Trevor (Dunn) from no-nonsense geezer to giddy sound effects enthusiast is a delight to watch as the play progresses.

Soon enough, my cheeks started aching from laughing too much. The comedy combines uncomfortable pauses with slapstick and lines which become hilarious in a new, unfortunate context. Even with everything going on, the intended mystery at the centre of The Play That Goes Wrong is intriguing in its own right. In the main sense of the word, the show remains totally and unbelievably awesome.

The Play That Goes Wrong is now playing at the Duchess Theatre until 28 April 2024.

British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performances are scheduled for 17 September and 6 October. Both captioned and audio described performances will take place on 22 September and 15 October.

Production Images: Robert Day.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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