The Play That Goes Wrong
Cambridge Arts Theatre
16th August 2022
Anyone who sees a lot of theatre will know that there are a number of things that can (and do) go wrong with any performance, and nowhere is this truer than in the wonderful world of Amateur Dramatics. For almost a decade, the Mischief Theatre company have been celebrating this with ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’, and shining a knowing light on the pitfalls and problems that can befall anyone setting foot on a stage. First seen in London in 2012 where it went on to win the Oliver Award for Best New Comedy, the play has also seen great international success in Canada and the US, and is currently enjoying its 5th UK tour where it finishes at the Cambridge Arts Theatre this week.
Written by Mischief founders Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ introduces us to the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, and its society head Chris Bean, who is certain that this year’s production won’t fall victim to the problems of the society’s previous shows. He introduces the audience to his production of ‘The Murder At Haversham Manor’, but mere minutes into the show, Chris soon realises that this play may actually be the most ill-fated of all, where everything imaginable really does ‘Go Wrong’.
‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ was the first Mischief creation, and it remains the strongest, being a masterclass in both physical and verbal comedy performed by actors at the top of their game. Original direction by Mark Bell (overseen on tour by Sean Turner) remains tight and cleverly thought through, keeping a great pace throughout and rarely letting the audience catch their breath before the next laugh. Physical gags are choreographed brilliantly with impeccable comic timing, and Nigel’s Hook’s impressive set is filled with an endless array of bits falling off or sliding down that maintains a continuous chaos. The blocking of the actors is occasionally a little clumsy, with the view obscuring a visual joke going on behind them, and the action is also frequently focused on the far right of the stage, which means audience members sitting at the extreme ends of the rows may miss some of the action.
To really get the most out of this material takes a certain performance skillset, requiring to be capable of both physical comedy as well as brilliant “knowingly-bad” acting. The cast assembled here do a tremendous job and it really is an ensemble piece. There isn’t a weak link, with everyone getting moments to shine and get their share of laughs. Colin Burnicle leads the show wonderfully as long-suffering Chris, performing in his beloved show and watching it slowly crash down around him, as well as breaking the fourth wall at times to vent his frustration at the audience and showing great ad-libbing skills as he reacts to the audience’s jibes. Edi De Melo brings great energy as Max, and Aisha Numah (Sandra) and Beth Lilly (Annie) are also fantastic as the leading actress who gets knocked unconscious and the unprepared stage technician who replaces her with no rehearsal. Gabriel Paul clearly has a great time as laid-back sound guy Trevor, more interested in mucking about and finding his Duran Duran CD than hitting his sound cues, and Harry Boyd also does well as Robert, stepping in as understudy to cover the role on Press Night.
‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ will be too farcical for some, and those who prefer their comedy more cerebral or subtle may be uncharmed, but as a piece of physical comedy it’s a knockout. Some jokes perhaps go on slightly longer than they should, but overall it’s brilliantly-written observation of the hazards of live theatre, and in terms of entertainment, it mostly ‘Goes Right’.
‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Sunday 21th August 2022
Performance runtime 2 hours 15 minutes including interval