Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: The Play That Goes Wrong

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: The Play That Goes Wrong

Article excerpt

The Play That Goes Wrong

Duchess, until 1 February 2015

Land of Our Fathers

Trafalgar 2, booking until 4 October

It's taken a while but here it is. The Play That Goes Wrong is like Noises Off , but simpler. Michael Frayn's cumbersome backstage farce asked us to follow the actors' personal stories as well as their on-stage foul-ups, and the surfeit of detail proved a bit of a brain-scrambler. This is a badly rehearsed thriller played by useless amateurs on a disintegrating set. Good clean knockabout.

Some of the background information is puzzling. The troupe calls itself the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society even though polytechnics no longer exist. And their decision to put on a creaky 1920s murder mystery seems a little perverse. Aside from the booby-trapped props and collapsing furniture, they haven't a clue how to bodge their way out of difficulties. This slightly mars the comic effect. A corpse has to be stretchered off and when the stretcher breaks, the actors abandon the corpse and remove the stretcher. Real actors would abandon the stretcher and remove the corpse. When a jammed door traps a player off-stage he delivers his lines as if he were on-stage. But why?

The show, written by two of the cast, suffers very slightly from the vice it sets out to mock: staginess. To impersonate a really bad actor takes a really good actor, and a few of these aren't up to it. One stands out. Dave Hearn plays a chinless toff in the first half and a dim gardener in the second, and he brilliantly conveys the awkward and narcissistic self-consciousness of an amateur thesp who can barely contain his glee at having reached the West End.

At a guess, I'd say this show will do very nicely at the box office but my verdict is irrelevant because farces of this kind, like musicals, tend to be impervious to critical analysis. What counts is word of mouth. I kept a close eye on my fellow play-goers at the Saturday matinee. For the first 20 minutes they smiled indulgently. Then they started to cough because the show seemed to be shaping up as an elongated Victoria Wood sketch. Coughing is a very bad sign. But then the comedy began to escalate, and its ingenuity and complexity intensified, and the laughter started to build and spread. By the end, the house was roaring its collective head off. …

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