Perkins, Thomas Colleymore, Cecil Haversham and, dead, Charles Haverhsam and, seated, Florence Colleymore. Pictures: Helen Murray

The Play That Goes Wrong

Birmingham Rep


Anything that brings laughter in these troubled times deserves to be cherished and here is a production with wall to wall fun – until the walls collapse all over the stage of course, with a little homage to Buster Keaton thrown in.

It’s a night of side splitting, knicker wetting laughs - a murder mystery with a script that was a criminal waste of ink and paper, acting that would make ham look like Olivier and props and set with a mind of their own.

In short it is a catastrophic, glorious disaster from start to finish, a hilarious catalogue of all the things that can, and do, go wrong when the curtain rises and the footlights glow . . . hopefully not setting the stage alight . . . after all, the show must go on.

Thus we have props that break, are missing, or fall off walls, doors that jam, scenery collapsing, the dead rising like Lazarus, actors finding themselves stuck in a dialogue loop repeating a section endlessly until someone finds the next line, or blundering on with the script, line by line, learned by heart, when it no longer makes any sense.

“Hand me the receiver Perkins” when you are already holding it for example, gives an idea of the standard of the acting and we have not even got to a cast member being rendered unconscious, as is her stand in and also the tech bloke who was standing in for the stand-in.

Neither have we mentioned the cat fight between the aforementioned former comatose cast member and her stand-in nor the stage-struck bloke who keeps smiling at the audience, enjoying all the attention and who has his own method of acting, combining delivery of his lines with helpful gestures to emphasise the words, a sort of frantic semaphore.

In short this is probably the worst production of  the worst play you are ever likely to see anywhere, and it is quite magnificent.

I first saw The Play That Goes Wrong on its first tour back in 2014 before it headed to the bright lights and fame and fortune of the West End and Broadway. The set is perhaps a little more sophisticated and the script tweaked a little but essentially it is still the same wonderfully daft, splendidly stupid comedy that took the country by storm last time around.

cecil and florence

Cecil finds himself draped in an amorous Florence

The second act descends, arguably, too far into the realms of slapstick, the words and plot lost in a whirl of fighting actors, collapsing set and general chaos, but who cares, by then the audience had long given up on the murder mystery and were delighting in the developing mayhem on stage in what is a very British comedy.

The premise is simple in that Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is performing A Murder at Haversham Manor, a murder mystery that Agatha Christie herself could have written . . . had she been semi-literate and on hallucinogenic drugs. Now this am-dram production does complicates things as the President of the society and director of the play is Chris Bean.

Except Chris Bean is actually played by Patrick Warner and the real director of this brilliantly timed and well paced play within a play is Mark Bell. Warner shows some lovely comic timing in his clever introduction as Bean and later in his despair as the sleuthing Inspector Carter when a prop, a ledger, goes missing which results in a stand-up session with the audience.

The play starts long before that though with crew and Chris searching outside the auditorium for missing dog Winston while the audience enter to find Trevor, played by Graeme Rooney, the sound and light man and Annie, the stage manager, played by Katie Bernstein, finishing off the set, with the help of some poor soul dragged up from the audience.

Then we have the murder victim Jonathan Haversham who does not quite make it to his position on the chaise longue for the opening before the lights go up. Jason Callender as Jonathan finds his dead self having to do quite a lot of moving for a corpse as the show goes on in a nicely tongue-in cheek performance.

Thomas, Inspector Carter and Perkins

When in doubt, look pensive: Thomas, Inspector Carter and Perkins

His, finally still, body is discovered by Thomas Colleymore, played by matter of fact and stick to the script come what may way by Adam Byron, and the butler Perkins played by Edward Howells, who keeps difficult words written on his hand with no idea how to pronounce them which gives us, for example a cloth which smells of the poison Kyaniddy – work that one out for yourself.

They are followed by Jonathan’s flakey and affected fiancée Florence played by Meg Mortell with her gesture and episodes, episodes the form of which no one seems to have decided, so become a sort of arthritic dance. The three come through a wall, incidentally, as the door that would not close is now jammed.

Enter Cecil Haversham, Jonathan’s brother, rather rapidly as the door unjams, played with all the smiles and milking of audience reaction of a five-year-old showing off in a school nativity play by Alastair Kirton in a lovely performance.

Kirton is back later as Arthur the gardener who he plays just as he played Cecil but in a different coat and with a dog lead – Winston still having not been found.

An unfortunate accident leaves Florence unconscious which brings in Annie in an ill-fitting wig and Florence’s dress tied around her who appears script in hand as a stand in Florence. That is until another unfortunate accident etc sees Trevor, with no wig or dress, just a script, recruited as a stand-in stand-in until he too is floored buy an unfortunate malfunction of a floor/ceiling, but luckily, or not, both Florences have recovered and return, Mortell without dress, and do battle for the part as plot, scenery, acting, production and sanity all fall apart in a splendid finale.

Nigel Hook’s stately home set is a masterpiece of dodgy with bits that fall off and a collapsing floor, or ceiling, depending upon whether you fall off it or it falls on you, and a temperamental lift.

Full marks as well to the technical crew, the real one, who have to cope with plenty of cues for Andy Johnson’s sound and Ric Mountjoy’s lighting, as well as the real stage managers with cues, props and well-rehearsed disasters in constant demand.

It’s not witty or subtle but by golly it is funny, laugh out loud, forget your troubles clever funny where the only thing certain in the production is the guaranteed sound of laughter - cherish it. This is a comedy gold, a real treat - the magical madness runs to 24-06-17

Roger Clarke


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