REVIEW: Mischief in The Play That Goes Wrong, on a cliff hanger until tomorrow

Clinging on to the wreckage of a performance: Leonard Cook, left, Gabriel Paul, Laura Kirman, Sean Carey and April Hughes in Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong

Mischief present The Play That Goes Wrong, as Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society mishandles Murder At Haversham Manor, at Grand Opera House, York, 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm and 7.30pm tomorrow

THE Play That Goes Wrong will be going wronger for a little longer at the Grand Opera House this week, and you must do anything to secure a ticket for this Mischievous misadventure. Well, short of committing murder at Haversham Manor, the scene of this hoot of a criminally good massacre of a detective thriller.

Amateur dramatics and thespian excess previously were the good-humoured subject of Michael Frayn’s gloriously chaotic Noises Off and the merry mayhem and sexual shenanigans of Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus Of Disapproval in 1982 and 1984 respectively. Great plays, timeless too, but distant days.

Then, more than three decades later, along came Mischief Theatre, or Mischief as these mischief makers now market their ever-expanding factory of affectionate spoofs, with Magic Goes Wrong and schools comedy Groan Ups as the latest additions.

The Play That Goes Wrong was the tumbling, crumbling template for the rest, conceived in 2008 by London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts graduates Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, with their dual fondness for improvised comedy and Michael Green’s lampooning guide to The Art Of Coarse Acting guide, rendered in perfectly timed physical farce and choreographed catastrophes with the double bluff of appearing to be off the cuff.

In a nutshell, the structure is in the play-within-a-play tradition: the under-funded, hapless Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society players and short-staffed production team are at full stretch and beyond as they strive to present Susie H.K. Brideswell’s whodunit Murder At Haversham Manor. The creative team is full of Beans, or rather, one Bean, director, designer, costume designer, prop maker etc, Chris Bean, lead actor to boot.

What could possibly go wrong? Everything, so much so that the director must wonder not so much whodunit but whydoit? For the players’ gamely persistence, much gratitude in the face of crisis after calamity, still more chaos after catastrophe.

When your reviewer says “everything goes wrong”, it could not go more right in going wrong because the consequences are comedy gold in the traditions of Fawlty Towers, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, Morecambe & Wise’s little plays and the best of Berwick Kaler’s “ad-libbed” York pantomimes, as opposed to disastrous amateur theatre experiences of yore.

In fact, the more it goes wrong, the better, the funnier, the kamikaze comic chemistry becomes, and the more times you see the show, the better, the funnier, it becomes too. Remarkable!

Introduced by outwardly implacable “first-time director” Chris Bean (Tom Bulpett), the murder mystery finds Bean re-emerging as moustachioed, far-from-implacable Inspector Carter. Everyone is playing someone playing someone, or they are by the end when sound engineer Trevor (Yorkshireman Gabriel Paul) and crew member Annie (Laura Kirman) are pressed into emergency roles on stage.

In response to the need for expediency in Covid times, Mischief have picked a cast of The Play That Goes Wrong old hands, their past experience adding wonderfully to the ensemble interplay as somehow the show must go on, no matter how many mishaps befall actors and Nigel Hook’s set alike. Indeed, his Haversham Manor is a character in itself.

Revel in the delightfully observed send-ups of actor types too, especially Leonard Cook’s Robert, roaring his Stanislavky method-acting way through the uproarious role of Thomas Collymore.

April Hughes’s parody of a hammy actress with an out-of-control ego and an inappropriate range of B-movie mannerisms is gleeful; Edward Howells’ Dennis keeps all around him on edge with his unexpected mispronunciations of butler Perkins’ words.

Everyone is so spot on that scene stealing is impossible, but Tom Babbage is a scream as Max, a novice over-actor, with ridiculously exaggerated arm movements, playing more and more to the audience, rather than the script, and leaping, let alone stepping, out of character.

Sean Carey’s Jonathan has a momentum-building habit of turning up at the wrong moment amid the calamitous clatter of pratfalls, prop mishaps, misbehaving scenery and gravely serious yet dead funny acting as Mark Bell’s cast negotiates this minefield of an obstacle course so adroitly.

For tickets, hurry, hurry to