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London Aisle View: Backstage Farce Most Foul

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 13/10/2015 Steven Suskin

2015-10-13-1444760683-1356766-ThecastofThePlayThatGoesWrongphotobyHelenMurray.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2015-10-13-1444760683-1356766-ThecastofThePlayThatGoesWrongphotobyHelenMurray.jpg The cast of The Play That Goes Wrong. Photo: Helen Murray
With four days in London last week, I had seven potential show-slots to fill. (Midweek matinees come on either Wednesday or Thursday, so this is not as difficult as it might sound if you don't mind spending all your time in darkened auditoriums.) Number eight on my list of seven was something called The Play That Goes Wrong. The others were all newer--Wrong was a holdover from last season--and decidedly more serious than what sounded like an old-fashioned backstage farce.
So it did not make the cut, but a last minute miscommunication freed my final slot and I found myself at The Play That Goes Wrong. You know that something "goes wrong" as you approach the Duchess, an intimate house across from Mamma Mia: one of the wildly ecstatic critic's quotes hanging from the marquee is upside down. There is also a sandwich-board sign with a big photo of a big movie star and the legend, "Tom Cruise will not appear at tonight's performance."
Upon taking your seat, you are quickly confronted by a scrungy stagehand-type in black working alongside a dorky stage manager in coveralls and pigtails. When I walked in, they were busy trying to find a lost dog-actor, who had escaped somewhere in the house. (Winston is never found, but nevertheless plays a big scene.) They work away at supposedly last-minute repairs: trying to close a living room door which won't stay shut; hammering a floor-board which tends to swing up and knock actors smack in the face; and bringing up a fellow from the audience to help with the repairs and abandoning him with his hands, head and leg trying to hold up falling scenery.
As curtain-time approaches, the supposed director/producer/star of the play makes a curtain speech, welcoming the audience to the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society production of "Murder at Haversham Manor." This, as it happens, is the sort of play that Agatha Christie most probably wrapped her fish in. The director apologizes in advance for the minor mishaps that are likely to occur, and they sure do.
The play is something of a comedic working-actor's nightmare: lines that go muffed, props that go missing, and disasters that come fastly furious. Things start out slight, but funny; if there is a corpse on a couch with his arm falling across the floor, every actor who passes by is sure to step on the hand. If there is a door that is supposed to open, it won't; if there is a balcony level to the set, it will inevitably collapse.
The Play That Goes Wrong instantly brings to mind Michael Frayn's expert Noises Off, albeit peopled not by members of a professional touring company but by community theatre types. As the play progresses, it becomes clear that it is not nearly on the level of Frayn's literate, highly sophisticated farce; this one is more like a succession of sketches from the old "Carol Burnett Show." (Nostalgic viewers seem to only remember the best of Burnett's sketches, but they weren't all quite so funny.) So you sit there thinking that The Play That Goes Wrong is amusing but relentlessly lusting for the lowest possible, most unsophisticated laughs.
As the piece progresses, though, you realize that this is not junk-food theatre; this is keenly-contrived and impeccably-crafted comedy of high order. Groaner follows groaner follows groaner, along with numerous easy and easy-to-forecast laughs. Every once in a while--more and more frequently as the play spins along its way--they throw in unexpected laughs, and before you know it you are thoroughly convulsed. The Play That Goes Wrong is so lowbrow that the brow is left dragging on the floor, but that's the art of it.
2015-10-13-1444760743-9912980-NiallRansomeDennisLaurencePearsJonathanLeonardCookRobertBryonyCorriganSandraandJamesMarloweMaxphotobyHelenMurray.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2015-10-13-1444760743-9912980-NiallRansomeDennisLaurencePearsJonathanLeonardCookRobertBryonyCorriganSandraandJamesMarloweMaxphotobyHelenMurray.jpg The cast of The Play That Goes Wrong. Photo: Helen Murray
Three out-of-work drama students--Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, grouped together under the name Mischief Theatre--devised the piece as a one-hour sketch, first performing it with friends above a pub. The laughs grew and the play grew, finally landing a year or so later on the West End. At the 2015 Oliviers, it took the Best Comedy award over the heavy-hitter Shakespeare in Love, and it is still going strong in its second year at the Duchess. What's more, the now-departed original cast is returning to London on December 4 with Mischief's Peter Pan Goes Wrong, for two months at the Apollo.
In his New York Times review of The Play That Goes Wrong last February, Ben Brantley mentioned that at intermission he was handed an envelope with a $5 bill and a note saying, "bribe." I, contrarily, was pulled aside by someone who introduced himself as one of the producers. (He looked like a combination of Lonny Price and Chip Zien, and I couldn't quite tell if he was a real producer or the producer of the play within the play within The Play That Goes Wrong.) He took me to the lobby bar, where he had waiting for me a plastic cup of lukewarm beer and a tin of crisps, which turned out to be what we in the States call potato chips (flavour: Chardonnay wine vinegar). The crisps were handmade, from Yorkshire. Comfort food with a kick, mighty tasty, and well-nigh irresistible. Just like The Play That Goes Wrong.
.The Play That Goes Wrong opened September 3, 2014 at the Duchess Theatre

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