Last Updated on July 24, 2021
Return of a West End favourite
Award-winning comedy The Play That Goes Wrong has reopened at the Duchess Theatre, its home in the West End since 2014. If you have forgotten what it’s like to experience that heady combination of shared laughter and live performance this could be the play for you.
Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields of the Mischief Theatre Company, The Play That Goes Wrong started life in 2012 as a one-act play performed in the tiny room above the Old Red Lion Pub in Islington. It opened to an audience of just four paying customers. The play has since been fleshed out and grown into a worldwide hit via a stint at the Trafalgar Studios, transfer to the West End and then onto Broadway. Along the way it has won an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and a Tony Award for Best Scenic Design and has been seen by more than two million people.
Anyone who is a regular theatre-goer or who has ever taken part in a school production will probably have seen or been in a play that’s gone slightly wrong. I remember a very dull West End production being positively enlivened by an American tourist loudly announcing from the circle that the man sitting next to her had died. The cast froze on stage, the safety curtain came down, the stage manager addressed the audience in hushed tones. We whispered amongst ourselves while awaiting the ambulance, but before it could arrive the woman in the circle addressed us again, this time shouting “Oh, I think he’s woken up!”
The premise of The Play That Goes Wrong is simple: to take all the usual theatrical mishaps to the extreme. The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is staging (or attempting to stage) the Murder at Haversham Manor and the familiar tropes of amateur/student dramatics are overlaid onto the stereotypical 1920s murder mystery. Everything that could possibly go wrong does. The comedy takes in everything from fluffed lines to lost props, incompetent support from backstage to a collapsing set, verbal gymnastics and bungled prompts. The Play That Goes Wrong has inevitably attracted comparisons with Noises Off, which I like so much I’ve seen it at least twice. While this play is far sillier and may lack the sophistication and nuance of Michael Frayn’s work, it doesn’t mean there isn’t room for another take on the backstage farce.
The show is performed with slapstick and verbal gusto by its young cast, who prove that acting being a bad actor is a skill in itself. Standouts include Jack Michael Stacey making his West End debut as Max the student playing Cecil, a chinless wonder in a cricket-blazer with a talent for smirking inappropriately at the audience. He manages to bring to mind the young selves of both Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall. Ross Green also puts in an excellent comic performance playing Chris, the increasingly beleaguered director of the murder mystery, as well as the police inspector. Michael Keane has great fun with as Dennis the student mispronouncing his way through his role as the butler. Another notable turn comes from Blayar Benn as Trevor, the hopeless sound and lighting operator who inevitably ends up on stage, script in hand.
Despite the passing of the supposed freedom day on 19 July, many of the familiar social distancing measures have been maintained at the Duchess. We were encouraged, but not forced, to keep our masks on when not sipping our drinks and seats are kept free between parties. We were required to fill in an online health survey before receiving our digital tickets too. Exchanging dates in the event of being “pinged” appears to be straightforward too.
The Duchess is a smallish theatre with an intimate feel that adds to the enjoyment of returning to the West End for a show that genuinely is laugh-out-loud funny.
The Play That Goes Wrong is booking to 30 January 2022
3-5 Catherine Street,
London, WC2B 5LA
For what’s coming up on the South Bank at the National Theatre, check Madeleine’s preview