THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 30th April, 2014
This absolute treat of a show is doing the rounds before its return to the West End and I advise you to catch it while you can. Basically, it’s a performance – or rather an attempt at a performance – of an old-fashioned whodunit, The Murder at Haversham Manor, the kind of creaky, cliché-ridden stuff that still crops up in summer seasons. The performers are members of a cash-strapped, talent-strapped, dramatic society who soldier on doggedly while all around them props go awry, bits of scenery drop off, lines dry up and actors are knocked unconscious. It’s like Noises Off on paint stripper.
The trick with this kind of thing is to keep the surprises coming and for the most part you don’t see what’s coming. When you do, there’s a delicious tension of anticipation and some remarkable feats of physical comedy. The show brings the house down, Buster Keaton style. It requires a lot of skill to perform so badly so well. This highly skilled ensemble reach Les Dawson-on-the-piano peaks of awfulness in their artistic endeavours and dazzle us with their comic timing and invention. You don’t stop laughing from start to finish.
Henry Shields kicks things off with an apologetic kind of pep talk as the show’s director, before returning to portray Inspector Carter. Shields is Basil Fawlty-esque in stature and evidently a genius of some sort. Jonathan Sayer is a hoot as declaiming butler Perkins who mispronounces key words; Charlie Russell struts and poses in the ingénue role of Florence; and Dave Hearn delights as Cecil whose ridiculous gesticulations are matched by his energetic clumsiness. Greg Tannahill is murder victim Charles who begins the play dead and hardly stops moving about after that. Nancy Wallinger’s stage manager has to step in and read from a script, growing fiercely possessive of her role and Henry Lewis clings to the set like a drowning man as the deceased’s brother Thomas. The whole cast delights and shines in this hilarious example of teamwork.
Nigel Hook’s set design is the star turn of the piece, and the unfolding chaos is orchestrated to perfection, highlighting the incompetence and panic of the ‘actors’ by director Mark Bell.
Amid the laughter, I wonder what it’s all about. Notions of a crumbling society striving to keep traditions going surface in my mind, but above all this is one of the funniest nights you can spend in a theatre, enjoying a show that celebrates theatricality by exposing all its artifices in bizarre and ridiculous extremes.