The Play That Goes Wrong is the most improbable hit in the whole of the West End. It grew from the grassroots up, gradually winning a fanbase as word-of-mouth spread like a wildfire. Today, after five years at the Duchess Theatre, it is a tourist attraction in its own right: accessible, entertaining and very, very English.
Framed as a creaky am-dram performance that comes apart at the seams, The Play That Goes Wrong does exactly what it says on the tin. It is the ultimate comedy of errors: a farce fashioned out of forgotten lines, missed cues and wobbly scenery.
Led by its demure director Chris, the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is mounting an outmoded country house crime thriller The Murder at Haversham Manor – not a million miles away from The Mousetrap. There’s a corpse laid out on the chaise longue in the oak-panelled room, albeit one with a tickly cough, and it’s up to one actor’s fruity detective to put the pieces together – even as the show itself falls apart.
It all started in a small room above a pub in 2012 A group of drama school graduates put together a small-scale, one-act comedy show with their clowning tutor, Mark Bell, in a 50-seat theatre on the London fringe, the Old Red Lion. On the first night, there were just four people in the audience. Fast-forward five years and an extended, upscale version of the same show was playing on Broadway with a Tony nomination to its name.
That went to Nigel Hook’s ludicrous set: theatre’s very own Mousetrap board. Almost every element of it is spring-loaded with an in-built gag. The doors stick, shelves collapse and paintings fall off the walls. The show’s crescendo owes a big debt to Buster Keaton’s slapstick.
The joy is watching actors attempt to keep calm and carry on as everything collapses around them. The more they try to improvise their way out of trouble, the more they tie themselves up in knots. Mishaps multiply, things fall apart and the laughs only escalate. The Play That Goes Wrong gets almost everything right.