Photo – Jeff Busby
The Mischief Theatre seems set to break the link between ‘farce’ and ‘descend’; their comedy The Play That Goes Wrong elevates the genre to a new era of cool.
Avoiding the stodgy, predictable set-ups that have been the face of too much comic theatre over the years, Mischief Theatre has tapped into the smarter, more physically challenging standards set by the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
The three English playwrights – Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields – have contrived their comedy around the pretext of an amateur dramatic society performance of The Murder at Haversham Manor.
Barely hidden beneath the roles they play in the whodunit are the individuals from the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society: the glamorous diva, the star-struck ingenu, the pompous buffoon, the model who wants to act, the self-appointed director, etc.
From the opening scene, when the curtain rises to find the “corpse” is not yet in place, the show is doomed. Problems that the cast don’t create for themselves (through overacting, mishap or incompetence) are provided by every malfunction you could imagine from a set, which takes on a life of its own. Consequently, the Drama Society crew – terminally distracted techie Trevor and super-keen stage manager Annie – are central to the chaos that ensues.
Determined that she show will go on, the cast persevere through every imaginable disaster: when the stretcher rips, leaving the corpse on stage, the body obligingly removes himself in a way that leaves his co-players speechless. Missing prop? – the cast inventively find a substitute, giving rise to a whole new set of gags and situation comedies. And when one side of the stage threatens to collapse, the cast simply contain the sliding furniture as best they can and adapt.
Every word of the dialogue is written with the visuals in mind, and verbal gags combine cleverly with the on-stage antics. The cast rise to the challenge of what is a highly demanding script, with loads of physical action as well as the need for perfect timing and an ability to accurately act as a bad actor. If the players start with plenty of posturing and stiff self-consciousness, the relentless accidents and setbacks force them to focus on simply finding a way to the finale.
The blank silences from the traumatised cast as they stoically face yet another unforseen calamity raise nearly as many laughs as the cleverly timed slapstick and awkward manoeuvers as yet more bodies needs removal or the set scores another hit against the actors, and there are also some delightful interactions with the audience, as hapless actors beam with naïve pride to applause for surviving yet another fraught moment.
James Marlowe, the only member from the original London cast who has joined the Australian cast, is particularly adept at “hapless”, while Brooke Satchwell as Sandra taps in to her inner diva and provides one of the highlights of the hectic finale as she battles with stage manager Annie (Tammy Weller), who discovers she quite enjoys her improvised role as understudy and isn’t keen to let Sandra resume her part.
On a couple of occasions situations are played out a tad too long and the joke becomes a bit stale, while at others there is so much silliness going on the dialogue gets lost, but overall the material stays fresh and well paced. It is also delightfully family friendly: you could take a grandparent or young child without fear of offending anyone.
The Play that Goes Wrong was first performed in a pub in London in 2012, then won a huge following after finding its way to the West End (winning the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2015) and it is set to open on Broadway after the current Australian tour.
After Melbourne, the tour takes in Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth. It is recommended for ages 8+.
Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, Kenny Wax Ltd and Stage Presence in association with ABA International Touring and David Atkins Enterprises present the Mischief Theatre Company production
The Play That Goes Wrong
Director Mark Bell
Venue: Comedy Theatre, 240 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Dates: from 22 February 2017
Tickets: from $89.90
Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, 58 Grote Street, Adelaide
Dates: from 28 March 2017
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: from 5 April 2017
Venue: Canberra Theatre, Civic Square, London Circuit, Canberra
Dates: from 25 April 2017
Venue: Concert Hall, QPAC, Corner of Grey & Melbourne Streets, South Bank
Dates: from 4 May 2017
Venue: His Majesty’s Theatre, 825 Hay Street, Perth
Dates: from 31 May 2017