Updated: Jun 20
"Not so fast, Inspector!"
“The Play That Goes Wrong” is like “Noises Off” on steroids, proving the facetious position that if something can go wrong, it will, and often at the worst time. In this killingly funny show, a never-ending stream of disastrous mishaps occur, some of which make the audience gasp – all of which make them laugh.
This eight-year old play, written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields for London's Mischief Theatre and now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre Los Angeles, July 9th through August 11th, could as easily have been called “The Set That Goes Wrong.”
At least 50 percent of the comic bits in this amusing, intensely physical comedy involve failures with the scenery (brilliantly designed by Nigel Hook): wall hangings fall, a door won't open, an elevator malfunctions, etc.
The set, in fact, so integral to the story about a provincial theater company that tries—and fails—to put on a rather lackluster fictional 1920s murder mystery, virtually becomes another character in the show. The Broadway production of the play won the Tony for best scenic design, quite naturally.
The humans in this production — the host of “awful” actors and “incompetent” crew members — also play their part in running the show off the rails. The ensemble, ironically, is packed with adept physical comedians, able to wring laughs out of jokes both small (in one running bit, for instance, one actor keeps stepping on the hand of another actor playing a corpse) and large (one of the more elaborate gags is a blatant steal from that master of silent physical comedy, Buster Keaton).
The show may be a little slow to get started — some of the repetitions in the first act make it feel padded — but the stakes are higher in the deliriously funny second act, as the level of chaos rises and the actors are forced to do increasingly dangerous feats. They struggle mightily to keep the story going — and, to our intense delight, fail.
Only a few years ago, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields were working minimum wage jobs in a Gourmet Burger Kitchen, a call center and behind a bar, respectively, after which they would perform twice nightly in their own one-act play in a room above a pub.
It was exhausting for all three, but enjoyable. “We’re absolutely delighted, it’s hugely thrilling,” said Lewis, “of a play that is becoming a word-of-mouth phenomenon.” A highly physical and very silly comedy, the play features cast and crew of the “Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society” playig bit parts in that 1920s murder mystery, in which literally everything that can go wrong, does. And that's why audiences and critics have lapped it up.
The show was written by Lewis, Sayer and Shields in 2008 after they had graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). Inspired by Michael Green’s 1964 book, "The Art of Coarse Acting," as well as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Mr. Bean, the result is a play awash with lost props, fluffed lines, bungled entrances and falling scenery.
It began life over the Christmas of 2012 at the Old Red Lion Theatre Pub in North London when it was called "The Murder Before Christmas." Following that was a spell at the Trafalgar Studios, which helped it win "Best New Comedy Award" at the whatsonstage.com awards, along with a national tour. It has evolved into a bigger and longer show, but they hope it still has an intimacy.
“When it was at the Old Red Lion the main fun was that you could see the whites of the actors eyes,” said Sayer. “Because of that it felt really dangerous and spontaneous. We’ve been really keen to make sure it still has that fun, live, exciting energy.”
Sayer said the thing they had on their side was the light-hearted approach they had to life's daily challenges. Even management of their marketing has taken a comedic turn, urging people to “save their money and don’t come.” People are still coming in droves.
But the premise is 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 the audience has taken their seats when cast members bustle through the front-of-house looking for a missing dog called Winston. And as more things go wrong, the comedy becomes riper.
We witness the performance by the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, presided over by their president, director and lead actor Chris Bean, by a blissfully goofy yet simultaneously sincere Evan Alexander Smith. 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, thanks to Director Matt DiCarlo, who probably deserves combat pay for directing what this talented cast must master, and who keeps the onstage energy from flagging. “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. Few have done collapsing sets so convincingly.
In the opening night of "The Murder at Haversham Manor," things are quickly going from bad to utterly disastrous. There are doors that do plenty more than slam, an unconscious leading lady, a corpse that has great difficulty playing dead, and overacting actors who trip over everything (including their lines), along with every costume, set and prop malfunction imaginable.
Brandon J. Ellis played the "role" of Trevor, purportedly the light and sound operator. From his seat in a box house right, he made us laugh as he frequently bungled his cues and was horrified by the trainwreck of a performance. I enjoyed every minute of his time on and off the stage. Angela Grovey was very memorable in the role of Annie, the doomed stage manager of the production.
The rest of the credits will be a bit hard to follow, due to the play within a play thing. Scott Cote played the role of Dennis Tyde, who portrays Perkins the butler of the Manor. Yaegel T. Welch played Jonathan Harris who plays the role of Charles Haversham in the play. Jacqueline Jamie Ann Romero nailed the physical demands of the role of Sandra Wilkinson, the scenery-chewing actress who plays the role of Florence Colleymoore.
Mr. Smith, who as I mentioned, played Chris Bean, the newly elected head of the drama society who takes on directing and just about everything else for the production, also plays the lead role of Inspector Carter. Ned Noyes takes on the earnest role of Max Bennett who portrays Cecil Haversham in the manor play, and Peyton Crim played Robert Grove, who portrays Thomas Colleymoore, who I am pretty sure was the first murder victim. Understudies included Michael Thatcher, Yaegel T. Welch, Sid Solomon, Brandon J. Ellis, Blair Baker and Jacqueline Jarrold.
Costume Design was spot on by Roberto Surace and delightfully detailed; Lighting designed was by Ric Mountjoy and Sound was by Andrew Johnson (and not really run by the character Trevor Watson) - impressive even in its malfunction. Original Music is by Rob Falconer; Original Direction on Broadway by Mark Bell, and Production Stage Manager is Jeff Norman.
“The Play That Goes Wrong” is currently running through August 11th, presented by Center Theatre Group at Ahmanson Theatre. The Ahmanson Theatre is located at The Music Center, 135 N Grand Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90012 Ticket and show information is at: https://www.musiccenter.org/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report