The Play That Goes Wrong – An Irrepressibly Calamitous Whodoneit

Comley University has some issues with its Drama Society. Tonight, there’s been a box office mix up and “we trust the 650 of you hoping to see Hamilton might enjoy our production as much.” Budget issues have necessitated shows such as Chekhov’s modified Two Sisters and, due to spoilage, James and The Peach, which further regressed to James, Where’s Your Peach? Last year, a casting issue determined the mounting of Snow White and The Seven Tall, Broad-Shouldered Gentlemen. We’re informed of the society’s vicissitudes by Chris Bean at this, his directorial “daboo.”

Fasten your seat belts, audience, this is going to be an hysterical ride.

When longtime butler, Perkins (Jonathan Sayer) and Thomas Colleymore (James Cordon lookalike Henry Lewis, who uses his body like a prop) walk around a wall  (the door is stuck) to bring Charles Haversham (Greg Tannahill – picture the deadpan perfection of Simon Jones) back to his wedding rehearsal party, they discover him murdered. Cue lights; ominous chord! Thomas’s sister Sandra (Charlie Russell), fiancé of the deceased, and Inspector Carter (Henry Shields) are sent for.

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Dave Hearn, Greg Tannahill, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell

Sandra, however, can’t get in either and must recite “No! I can’t believe what I’ve seen!” at the window far from view, then clumsily climbing through. Cecil Haversham (Dave Hearn who resembles Bill Irwin both in appearance and style) is pushed through the door by momentarily exposed, thoroughly abashed, cast members and stage hands. Having made his way through a blizzard – cue the tossing of square-cut white tissue paper outside, the Inspector arrives.

Everyone needs a drink. Perkins takes a grinding, smoke spewing elevator to the second floor study (we see this as an open platform with furniture) and retrieves a full bottle of scotch when, according to dialogue, it should be empty. Thinking fast he pours its contents down the intercom which opens onto the stage below with a splash. There should be a full bottle, he’s told. Reaching elsewhere, he then raises an empty one to the audience. Outcome: the company finds itself repeatedly drinking Paint Thinner (and just as often spitting it out.) Vintage? “Flammable and Corrosive.”

Missing props are blatantly handed in. Others are substituted for on the spot. Looking for the Inspector’s pencil, Thomas finds only duly delivered keys. The requested notebook is replaced by a vase filled with roses. Carter gamely scratches keys against vase to write. Henry Shields has the young John Cleese’s public school persona gone wildly awry. He manages to be staunch patrician and hugely droll at the same time.

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Authors: Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis

When the mantel falls off, stagehand Annie (Bryony Corrigan) finds herself holding two candlesticks through the wall a la Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Later, she’s forced to take over for the knocked out actress who plays Sandra, red dress on top of her overalls, book in hand. At first, Annie’s like a deer in headlights, then palpably surprised at the ongoing plot, and finally, territorial. When the original Sandra revives in Act II, returning to the stage in her scanties, the two physically fight out every line. Corrigan is swell.

Charles’s body falls through a stretcher. Two poles are ceremoniously carried out empty as if they were not, while the corpse crawls and slithers his way out the now functional door, rising to dramatically cross hands over chest. Later, Cecil must find an alternative solution to being borne by the broken carrier.

Sandra is having a secret affair with Cecil – did they do it?!, but the actor is repulsed by the actress’s advances. During an eventual forced kiss, he looks like a boa constrictor trying to swallow her whole. This particular player must be new to “the drama society.” He thrills to applause, taking time to appreciate it, beaming, sometimes bowing or repeating an action. Dave Hearn is one of the great highlights of the production. He’s adorable, executes slapstick like a silent film pro, and responds with uproarious precision.

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Dave Hearn, Charlie Russell

There’s another murder, a discovered will, and the appearance of a Head Gardener who may be involved (Hearn). Motivation abounds. Cues fall unanswered. Up in a visible stage box, Stage Manager Trevor (Rob Falconer) is more concerned with the loss of his Duran Duran tape than the production, though even he gets amusingly conscripted when two of the cast are stricken unconscious.

When Carter can’t find a mislaid ledger, frustration leads to actual whimpering. We see it under the chaise. An audience member, then several, helpfully call out its location out to the actor. (I’ll wager a month’s rent this occurs on the night you’re there.) Needless to say, he responds with fury at our not taking the play seriously.

The play within the play, though certainly broad satire, is sufficiently well written to hold attention. Focus is paramount and present. Company members each have their contributory strengths with only Charlie Russell and Jonathan Sayer relative disappointments.

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Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields, Dave Hearn

Every move is accompanied by perfectly timed freezes as the cast registers and/or endures one disaster after another. Expressions are priceless. I’ve seen several productions of Michael Frayn’s backstage piece, Noises Off, and I’m here to tell you this multiplies that play’s pandemonium by tenfold. Or more. Fights are beautifully choreographed, elaborate pratfalls and saves worthy of Chaplin and Keaton. Bravo Director Mark Bell.

Nigel Hook’s brilliant, elaborate, tawdry looking Set is engineered within an inch of company lives, like a Rube Goldberg mechanism.                                                             Roberto Surace’s Costumes are worthy of Agatha Christie.Sound Design by Andrew Johnson demands as much exactness as cascading scenery and comes through with flying colors.

The Play That Goes Wrong, is conceived and – lucky us – enacted, by three twenty-something, out of work, British actors who will stop appearing after the Broadway iteration. Already a long running West End hit, the farce has spawned a number of other, international productions. It’s easy to imagine the piece going viral with long lives everywhere people need to laugh. Go. It’s a tonic.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel

Opening: Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis, Dave Hearn, Charlie Russell (window), Greg Tannahill

The Mischief Theatre production of
The Play That Goes Wrong
“The Cornley University Drama Society presents
Murder at Haversham Manor by Susie H. K. Brideswell”
Directed by Mark Bell
Written by Henry Shields, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer
Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street

About Alix Cohen (720 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.