It’s hardly an original idea: the spectacle of plays going wrong have long provided comic delight from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, but seldom has a theatrical evening been so utterly and entirely sustained by it.
The play starts ‘going wrong’ even before it has begun when cast members bustle through the front-of-house looking for a missing dog called Winston. And the more things go wrong, the more ripe for theatrical comedy are the results. I’ve seen some pretty unintentionally duff shows at the Duchess Theatre in my time – anyone remember Behind the Iron Mask? When the title character sang ‘Why am I here?/I can’t move/There’s no escape/I’m here forever,’ the audience knew exactly how he felt. But this time we’re at the Duchess to enjoy the joke, not suffer it. We’re witness to a performance by the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, presided over by their president, director and lead actor Chris Bean a blissfully goofy yet simultaneously sincere Henry Shields. They’re about to give us their version of a 1920s stage murder mystery called Murder at Haversham Manor.
The finer plot points of this play need not detain us; they certainly don’t seem to have been retained by its players, who also inevitably struggle to remember their lines. In one blissful sequence, one actor has the lines entirely out of sequence with the other, giving the reply before the questions; in another, they loop around the same scene endlessly.
But it is the outrageous, sometimes courageous inventiveness of the physical comedy that’s even more impressive. It may sometimes feel a little relentless, but the surprise is just how brilliantly sustained it all is. Director Mark Bell keeps the onstage energy from flagging, and Nigel Hook’s set is one of the stars of the evening. “This set is a bloody deathtrap,” complains the stage manager at one point. He’s right, but it has been choreographed to an inch of its life not to mention those of its onstage companions. I’ve seen quite a few collapsing sets in the theatre, but few that have done so quite so convincingly.
The joke may, however, been stretched just a little too far. When it was first premiered at the fringe Old Red Lion in December 2012, and then subsequently transferred to the Trafalgar Studios 2, it was done in a one-act version that ran for not much more than hour. Now it goes to over two, with an interval, and is in danger of wearing the audience down and beating it into submission. It should leave you wanting more; this left me wanting a bit less. Nevertheless, I laughed a lot at this gloriously preposterous and utterly silly evening, and it’s lovely to see the fringe Mischief Theatre, founded in 2008 by graduates of LAMDA as an impro comedy troupe, make it to the West End by dint of sheer hard work and talent.
- Duchess Theatre, London
- September 5-February 1, PN September 14
- Authors: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields
- Director: Mark Bell
- Design: Nigel Hook set, Ric Mountjoy lighting, Roberto Surace costume, Andy Johnson sound
- Technical: Digby Robinson production manager, Nick Earle company stage manager, Annie Twilloil stage manager, Trevor Watson lighting/sound operator
- Cast: Rob Falconer, Henry Shields, Greg Tannahill, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Charlie Russell, Dave Hearn, Nancy Wallinger
- Producer: Kenny Wax Ltd, Stage Presence Ltd, Mischief Theatre production
- Running time: 2hrs 5mins
- Reviewer: Mark Shenton