Slapstick comedy and tumbling sets provided the belly laughs in The Play that Goes Wrong, writes Ed Power.
It’s the day after the British general election and all anyone wants to talk about is the stunning rebuff voters have given Theresa May.
On stage in Manchester, however, a very different sort of farce is playing out — involving dodgy doors, malfunctioning mantle-pieces and a lift spewing smoke and fumes.
This is the matinee performance of The Play That Goes Wrong, a free-wheeling farce that has conquered Broadway and the West End and is now en route to Dublin’s Bord Gais Energy Theatre.
As the belly laughs ringing out across the Lowry Theatre testify, it’s an unabashed, old school riot, combining slapstick, winkingly wooden acting and knock-about visual gags.
The humour is framed by giant floating quotation marks. The joke is we’re watching the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society production of hokey murder mystery, Murder at Haversham Manor.
With an amateur cast – in reality a troupe of West End veterans – and a set literally held together with duct tape, anything can go wrong. And it does, loudly and hilariously.
“Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd – those were some of the key influences, “ says Patrick Warner, who plays the drama society’s beleaguered director Chris Bean (and also the play-within-a-play’s lead, Inspector Carter).
“In fact, one of the chaps who wrote it keeps a picture of Buster Keaton over his dressing room wherever he goes.”
In this era of blockbuster theatre and big-name casting, The Play That Goes Wrong is the little drama that could.
There are no familiar faces in the cast or Harry Potter-style brand recognition. Instead, the production, among the winners at this month’s Broadway Tony awards, has achieved its success through word of mouth.
“The first performances were over the Old Red Lion in Islington,” says Warner. “The lads who wrote it were at drama school at the same time as us.
They found themselves unemployed and had been doing improv together. They knocked something together. Now it’s in 28 countries.
“It’s lovely because there are no star names,” adds actor Edward Howells (Perkins the butler).
“That’s hugely refreshing. No one is coming to see a big star off the telly. They’re coming to see the play. It’s proof that if you create something and work really hard, people will respond. Word of mouth is a powerful thing. Of course, it helps that it is very silly as well.”
This is a proper rags to riches story. When writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields started putting on The Play That Goes Wrong in a first floor function room all three were working minimum wage day jobs at Gourmet Burger Kitchen.
With their stage careers going nowhere, they had knocked the piece together largely for their own amusement. Everything that has happened since has been one ongoing surprise...
“We never really had long-term goals with it. We were an improv company for a long time and really wanted to do something scripted in London and we had this idea so thought ‘let’s do it’,” Lewis commented in 2015.
“When we were taking it on tour we knew the West End guys were coming to see it and that there was a possibility that if they liked it, it could transfer.
Initially we thought that if it came into the West End it would just be a filler show for the summer with a six- or eight-week run.
We thought that would be a brilliant way to end the tour, but actually they really liked it and thought it could run for a long time.”
“If it’s funny people will tell others. If it’s not they won’t,” added Shields. “That’s the challenge, you can never relax, you can never take your foot off the pedal, you’ve always got to make sure it’s slick every night.”
The critical response upon the transfer to the West End was immediate and swooning.
The Financial Times lauded The Play that Goes Wrong as a crowd-pleasing trumph – “slapstick, done well, can reduce even the gravest souls to tears and there are some perfectly timed pratfalls here”.
Meanwhile, the man from the Daily Mail was so tickled he fretted he might lose control of his faculties: “At one point I feared I was going to hyperventilate.”
The reaction was no less rapturous when the production went to New York, with Henry Shields in the Warner role of Chris/Inspector Carter.
“Done right, the backstage farce is one of the most blissful forms of entertainment in existence,” said the New Yorker.
“The show is pure comedic eye candy, and technically flawless. It’s closer to synchronised swimming or fight choreography than to its more contemplative theatrical cousins.”
The chaos is of course meticulously orchestrated. The award-winning set by Nigel Hook literally falls down around the cast – but with so many tumbling props, it is essential everyone is in the right place at the correct time.
“We had a very strange rehearsal period,” says Warner. “It was half clown-based improv, half drilling the times for safety.
“When things start coming down, people have to be standing exactly where they are supposed to – just in case something goes wrong.”
Nonetheless accidents happen. In a performance earlier in the week actor Edward Judge broke his wrist after a tumble.
The audience, assuming this to be a scripted pratfall, howled their heads off. Judge was howling too – though not from amusement.
“It’s the innocuous things,” says Warner. “He fell over and his wrist went. We thought, ‘oh you idiot’. But it became clear very quickly that it was quite serious.
“And he still had to get through the entire first act. There was a sword fight he had to pull off – with a broken wrist.”
If The Play That Goes Wrong invariably packs off the punters home in stitches, for the actors it can be more disconcerting experience.
Its cataloguing of the many things which can go awry on stage will send a chill through the heart of any professional thespian.
“Almost all of that stuff that goes wrong in the play has gone wrong for me at some time,” smiles Warner.
“There’s a bit at the top where they are banging on the door and it won’t open - that’s happened to me.
“In that situation you just plough on. Of course the difference is that in real life it isn’t funny at all. It’s absolutely mortifying.”
The Play That Goes Wrong runs at BGE Theatre, Dublin, June 26 – July 1.
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