Brighton Year-Round 2021
This touring version of Mischief Theatre writers’ Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields The Play That Goes Wrong is directed by Mar Bell, (Tour Director Sean Turner, Resident Director Amy Marchant) with Nigel Hook’s exploding set design, Rick Mountjoy’s similarly exploding lights, with Roberto Surace’s costumes. Rob Falconer’s ominously cod music is cut to pieces by Andy Johnson’s sound. Till November 20th then touring. Its latest successor Groan Ups arrives at Theatre Royal from 23-27th November.
It’s back. And it’s dangerous to a theatre near you. A play about amateurs no amateur company should even dare contemplate, Mischief Theatre’s first hit The Play That Goes Wrong from 2013 has started a tour with its latest successor (Groan Ups from 2019) which arrives in Brighton next week, after nearly demolishing the Vaudeville and leaving a swathe of toppling um, groan-ups.
Before health and safety close TPTGW down (I’ve demolished it to acronyms), get over to what’s left of Theatre Royal Brighton because by the time you’ve read this the ‘Royal’ might have already lie shattered in the foyer.
Cornley (geddit?) Polytechnic Society’s fame spreads courtesy of a legacy and tyro Chris Bean’s helming everything from direction and lead part trough to costume, design, prop….
No that’s not it. The Mischief writing team, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields are abetted by director Mark Bell (tour director Sean Turner, resident director Amy Marchant) and with a set design by Nigel Hook that lives up to his name. Ric Mountjoy segues his lighting to exploding blackout in lifts and a variety of electrical surprises. Roberto Surace’s garish just slightly ‘off’ period costumes are a fine guilty secret. Rob Falconer’s ominously cod music is cut to pieces by Andy Johnson’s sound.
Surprisingly it’s a rather good-looking library space at Haversham Hall, with lined bookshelves with one reversible bookcase, mullioned windows and a door jambed from start to the finish; people are dragged through these, or are hit inadvertently. A kind of cutaway mezzanine study above stage left begins tilting as soon as the sound and lighting Gabriel Paul’s Trevor knocks over the main support. He earlier asks us if we’ve found his CD box of Duran Duran, but don’t worry, it turns up. As does the invisible dog Winston. The consummately put-upon Paul’s returning in this role with a mostly fresh cast.
In fact there’s stage business ‘talk amongst yourselves’ for the first few minutes as a clever preset becomes the play, techies running about and making an accident scene a disaster zone. And we’re asked by ASM Annie Twilloil (Laura Kirman) if there’s a hammer in the house.
All worry’s magnificently quelled by Tom Bulpett’s Chris Bean, both lead (Inspector Carter) and all-round genius responsible for everything, contextualising this play as a step up from Chekhov’s Two Sisters, or The Lion and the Wardrobe, all abbreviated by shortage of cast. Today’s six-pack stint nothing, and we have a couple of wild techies to swell their ranks. After such a reassurance we’re glad we’ve not been present before. But this team being what they are, we will be again.
This is a play about theatre of course, and if it’s a mercilessly funny amateur disasters run-through it packs uppercuts to the profession as well. Oh, and one of Cornley crew is called Max Bennett (Tom Babbage, playing the play’s uber-gestural Cecil). I hope the real Bennett (the one appearing with Keira Knightley who garnered such acclaim recently) was in on the joke.
It takes many run-throughs to get such a conception exactly right. Only in their subsequent comedy have I seen timing like this, and this touring version yields nothing to the original production. It can’t afford to. Parts of the set falling on the ASM just as she steps into the right place for the window space, the way the heroine (April Hughes acting up oft-thwacked siren Florence Colleymoore) is dragged through a window upside down leg akimbo, takes every health and safety manual upside down, precisely. Hughes is literally catapulted into being funny and adroit, vampish and quite often vertical. For much of the action she’s horizontal, occasionally in a grandfather clock after meeting with a door several times and eventually Kirman’s Annie who has to stand in for her, nicking her red dress (so Hughes appears scantily without it). Kirman reads in speech and ‘exit’ a monotone and stays there.
The weird thing is Annie suddenly gets the acting bug three quarters of the way through the pay she’s ASM-ing on. Cue savage attempts to put Sandra back in the grandfather clock, permanently. Sandra fights back. More murder’s being attempted backstage than onstage.
Kirman inhabits the typical ASM suddenly derailed. Kirman’s deliciously deadpan too, all flat vowels suddenly shrieking with real passion and hapless acting. And getting slapped by the door too. It’s a revolving one, knocking out first the original Florence, then her substitute in turn, till Annie takes being a door into her own hands.
But where do we start? Not there, though Jonathan Harris’ dead Charles Haversham (real actor Sean Carey – think you’re confused?) engaged to Sandra’s Florence Colleymoore (that’s Hughes of course) is actually dead on the chaise-long, a poisoned sherry glass the culprit. This is in fact the (like all eight) consummate Carey, desperate to appear professional like all his company, when the professional would simply cut. But Carey/Harris has a lot to do, not just mobbing his hand after it gets stamped on, or scuttling like a salamander when he falls through a wonky stretcher and has to get himself off set; an early highlight that tonight gets a round of applause.
The keynote behind this slapstick isn’t the way the play goes so wrong that no-one cares about the nominal plot. We take that as misread, as it were. It’s how every technique from getting groundhog-day-lost when someone repeats a key line (Annie’s ‘I feel a chill inspector’) to coming on at the wrong time with a loaded gun (why? We only find out in the last appearance) replicates every conceivable theatrical disaster. There’s Edward Howells’ geeky Dennis Tyde plying the butler Perkins who mispronounces every prompt off his own cuff. It takes some doing to consistently mispronounce so much so robotically. I doubt if No. 10 could manage it.
Bulpett’s control-freak director in fact goes so wrong – it’s a beautifully observed comment on how the most perfectionist do – that the audience is berated. Bulpett masters the twitchy eye for disasters out of director Chris Bean’s talent zone to control. Unable to locate a prop ledger as clue (it got moved by the corpse), Bean repeats and repeats like a ticking little corporal in recovery, and explodes as we explode.
There’s energetic work from lover of elder brother’s fiancée. This is Cecil Haversham played by Max Bennett (no not that Max Bennett) and… Tom Babbage. That’s the name to hang on. All flounce and famished lover, Bennett’s the grinning amateur who milks applause, swings to the audience even after he’s been carted off, and beams horribly. We’ve all seen it, but not as nightmarishly as this. Babbage is a terrific physical actor.
Thomas Colleymoore aka Robert Grove (who offers acting classes by the way) is the stentorian but dodgy brother. In reality it’s Leonard Cook who affects just the right degree of wounded but jealous cad who perhaps doesn’t quite deserve his fate.
There’s brief appearances from Katie Hitchcock, Damien James Edi de Melo and Aisha Numah who appear in brief tech-runs and premature curtain raisings, all dancing with aplomb through the debris.
It’s a play to see before bits of it strike you – as mad. And any amateur company attempting to mount this, well doubtless Mischief will be round with the police to dissuade them (in truth they’ll be begging for a masterclass, but I’m not sure which from which).
There’s something of genius in the timing of all this. The placement of a single wooden prop, quite small, so that as a man slides off a wooden floor he catches it as it slides past him. And if that doesn’t spell out the larger mayhem, nothing will. After three years since it first arrived, the mostly new cast prove just as outstanding.