Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 2, 2017
A Mischief Theatre production of The Play That Goes Wrong by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. Directed by Mark Bell. Scenic design by Nigel Hook. Costume design by Roberto Surace. Lighting design by Ric Mountjoy. Sound design by Andrew Johnson. Original music by Rob Falconer. Cast: Rob Falconer, Dave Hearn, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields, Greg Tannahill, Nancy Zamit, Matthew Cavendish, Bryony Corrigan, Jonathan Fielding, Amelia McClain.
For all this, though, The Play That Goes Wrong, a Mischief Theatre production from London, stops well short of hilarious. Even if, like me, you enjoy the nonstop antics across the two hours of playing time (including the pre-show and intermission, which are themselves event-packed), you may find yourself frustrated by how shallow it all is. Writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, and director Mark Bell, have proven expert at making their show funny. They have not, however, made it anything else.
This is its critical departure from its obvious theatrical antecedent, Michael Frayn's Noises Off. That play, like this one, concerns a hapless English troupe struggling against unthinkable odds just to get their show up and running, and, like this one, involves things spinning more and more out of control until it seems as though only entropy ought to be billed above the title. But Frayn wrote an honest-to-goodness play that doesn't just carpet-bomb with jokes but contextualizes them with real characters suffering real problems and conducting real rivalries. You don't just care whether you (or they) see the end of Nothing On, the stupid script they're performing, you care about whether theyas peopleare able to keep it together.
People beyond the stage personas in The Play That Goes Wrong essentially do not exist. Yes, there's Chris Bean (Shields), the star, director, designer, and most everything else of the Cornley University Drama Society's production of Susie H.K. Brideswell's indecipherable Agatha Christie-styled 1920s mystery, The Murder at Haversham Manor. Chris speaks briefly before each of the two acts, positioning himself as a dedicated artist who has gotten in way over his head. But the writers make scant additional effort to particularize those who are behind this ever-evolving travesty.
That's fine in theory, but it's bereft of humanity, and there aren't many places to go with it; for both reasons, the writers strain more and more against the limitations as the proceedings unfold. The would-be climax of Act I involves Dennis going up on a line during a plot-critical scene, forcing his three costars to repeat the whole thing five times before they get back on track. That's a lot of repetition, and without an anchoring explanation of what's causing it or what propels the performers-within-the-performers to make the choices they do, it falls flat starting around the third time through. Later, after Sandra is indisposed, Annie is pressed into service in her part, but when Sandra recovers and attempts to reinsert herself into the action, she and Annie spend most of their time trying to one-up each other for the spotlight. The intended explanation, as far as I can tell, is that Annie discovers how much fun acting can be and just wants to experience more of it, but that's a flimsy pretext that doesn't pay many dividends when both women are enigmas.
Many other choices are stunningly dishonest. A major running bit involves the actors drinking paint thinner in place of prop whiskey and spit-taking it out; that makes sense enough during the first act, but no one switches it out for Act II? If Robert is such a big-deal professional, why can he not remember his lines? Why does Dennis not know how to correctly pronounce simple words relevant to his role (among others, he says "ky-a-nid-ee" instead of "cyanide" and "fu-cade" instead of "façade")? Why, when she must take over for Sandra, does Annie behave as though she knows nothing about the plotif she's the stage manager, didn't she ever have to, you know, call it? Is the implication that none of these people ever rehearsed together, let alone with Chris? Considering they can't do anything else, how on Earth did this company manage to integrate a working electric elevator into its set? And, most outlandishly, how did this thing ever get to Broadway?
Lewis, Sayer, and Shields mine every bit of humor they can from these decisions; they are going for laughs, will do anything to get them, and succeed 99 times out of 100. But it's not enough to result in an evening that's satisfying, let alone coherent. Everything exists in its own isolated universe, and you're not supposed to think of what comes before or after; the lack of build, and worse the lack of the possibility of build, means there's no deep, memorable fun to be found. Junk-food theatre doesn't get much junkier than this.
Still, Bell has overseen the miraculous coordination of the sophisticated, intentionally cheap-looking scenic design (by Nigel Hook), crazy supper-crust costumes (Roberto Surace), dopey lighting (Ric Mountjoy), music and sound (Falconer and Andrew Johnson) so that everything blends seamlessly. (Even the Playbill, loaded with both a fake Cornley program and various zany misprints, plays along.) The actors slot perfectly in, too, as tight an ensemble as you could wish for. I'd give Hearn a slight edge because of the beaming joy he evinces whenever he unearths an unexpected laugh in Max's generally stuffy business, but everyone has blinding moments of brillianceand a lot of them.
In these ways, this is everything you want from a play. Ultimately, though, it's not much more than an elaborate parlor trick. Anyone can devise a list of theatre catastrophes and bring them to life. Making them mean something beyond that single, paper-thin dimension is much harder and, sadly, where The Play That Goes Wrong goes wrong.