Mischief Theatre Company at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford
They must be well-endowed, those Cornley Polytechnic thespians. Generously funded, to build such an imposing set, with lovely oval windows and a study perched above.
As the title implies, this piece imagines an amateur production where everything that can go wrong will do so. A relentless chain of catastrophes, minor and major, that keeps the audience continuously chuckling and chortling.
I spend a fair few evenings watching amateur drama, some of it excellent, some of it execrable, though never as hilariously horrendous as this. There are some recognizable characters – the thrusting leading lady, the nervous newcomer, the character actor who struggles with polysyllables. And some familiar fiascos, too – the looping dialogue, the wayward props, the premature entrance.
These energetic young actors [LAMDA Graduates] are on their first ever UK tour, a rare chance for us in the Sticks to enjoy a taste of the best of the Fringe, from the Red Lion to Edinburgh to the old Whitehall, and now travelling the length and breadth, finishing at the other Civic, Darlington, in June.this piece first appeared on ”The Public Reviews
and for The Public Reviews
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The Art of Coarse Acting meets Noises Off. Co-written by Mischief Theatre company members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and directed by Mark Bell, The Play That Goes Wrong introduces the "Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society" whose production of a 1920's murder mystery falls apart before our eyes.
The venture began as a fringe piece, little more than an hour long. Now, for this national tour, it's twice that length, including the interval – not necessarily an improvement. And the spoof programme, much admired at the Red Lion and the Trafalgar Studios, is nowhere to be found. Not even a cast list. Mislaid, no doubt, along with the [running gag] Duran Duran box set. And the dog.
It does remain unbelievably funny, though, reducing the house to helpless laughter. More of an extended sketch than a proper farce, it boasts an amazing technical set, and some exhaustingly physical performances, as the hapless actors drop like flies and risk serious injury in a health and safety nightmare. Props are mislaid and substituted. Fixtures and fittings take on a life of their own. A dialogue loop sees the actors wax increasingly hysterical as they struggle to break free. Whisky goes up in flames, white spirit is the unpalatable substitute. And that raised level – study with desk, chair and globe drinks cabinet – is surely asking for trouble ...
The “director” [Henry Shields], who delivers a front-cloth filler at the top of each act, also plays the Inspector, so he's on stage to see his début dreams collapsing around him. He does rueful desperation and disappointment wonderfully, in a faintly Fawlty style. Jonathan Sayer is Perkins the faithful retainer, as played by an awkwardly unconfident amateur, reading those tricky long words off his palm. The flighty young ingénue is amusingly done by Charlie Russell, replaced by an increasingly bold ASM after the first of many maiming mishaps. But the award for the best incarnation of stage fright, gauche, nervous and grinning in terror, is Dave Hearn, playing both Cecil the corpse's brother, and Arthur the Gardener.
Techies [played perfectly by actual actors, including Rob Falconer's grumpy sparks] are let loose amongst us at the incoming and the interval, while on stage we watch a relentless succession of slapstick and sight gags, performed with precision timing and real relish by an excellent ensemble.