REVIEW: Mischief’s Peter Pan Goes Wrong, Leeds Grand Theatre, until Sat, ***1/2 stars to the right and straight on till morning

Gripping moment in Mischief’s Pan-tomime : Gareth Tempest as Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s Jonathan Harris in the role of Peter Pan in Mischief’s Peter Pan Goes Wrong. All pictures: Pamela Raith

MISCHIEF, those cavorting catalysts of chaotic comedy through catastrophic collisions, return to Leeds Grand Theatre this week in the immediate aftermath of the riotous pantomime season. Cue the breathless pantomimic piratical pratfalls of Peter Pan Goes Wrong.

“Not a pantomime. A traditional vignette,” corrects Jack Michael Stacey’s Chris Bean, po-faced president of Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society and director of Peter Pan.

If you haven’t caught the dizzying merry mayhem of The Play That Goes Wrong, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery or Magic Goes Wrong on their York visits, these Mischief makers with improv roots are schooled in the calamitous comedy of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off and Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus Of Disapproval and the theatrical in-jokes and home truths of Michael Green’s The Art Of Coarse Acting books.

Directorial tussle: Jack Michael Stacey’s Chris Bean and Matthew Howell’s Robert Grove in Peter Pan Goes Wrong

Add the crazed slapstick of Rik Mayall & Ade Edmondson’s Bottom, the physical grace of Buster Keaton’s films and the anarchic spirit of Monty Python, and you have a comedy compound that can’t go wrong, despite the show titles.

Metatheatre, you might call it: not so much breaking down theatre’s fourth wall as treating it as an obstacle course to be negotiated. Or the wall being smashed and rebuilt time after time. Or Sisyphus forever rolling an ever-bigger boulder up theatre’s steepest hill.

The audience is in on the joke from the moment of arrival: cast members and technicians have the frantic demeanour of Basil Fawlty as they struggle to set up the stage, the lighting fizzing and malfunctioning, but all the while they must try to maintain an air of calm.

Theo Toksvig-Stewart, left, Ciara Morris and Clark Devlin as the Darling children with Matthew Howell as Nana the dog

In keeping with The Play That Goes Wrong, the structure is a play within a play, or more precisely a play struggling to reach the finishing line with all the problems and crises that threaten to derail it. Ostensibly we are watching Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s hapless amateurs performing Peter Pan, but en route, their personal back stories, egos, insecurities, neuroses, backstage dalliances and artistic incompetence keep feeding into the performance.

Director Bean (casting himself as George Darling/Captain Hook) has to deal with the rampant ego of co-director – no, assistant director, insists Bean – of Matthew Howell’s Robert Grove (who goes on to bring the house down as Nana the Dog, Peter’s Shadow and especially as an exasperated Starkey, going from being incomprehensible to making himself understood by all but Devlin’s dimwitted Mr Smee.

Rosemarie Akwafo’s Lucy Grove suffers from chronic stage fright; Theo Toksvig-Stewart’s production-funding Max Bennett has an unrequited crush on Ciara Morris’s Sandra Wilkinson (playing Wendy); Clark Devlin’s Dennis Tyde has to be fed every line through a headset (in one of the best running gags in Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields’ script).

Jean-Luc Worrell as Francis Beaumont, the Narrator in Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s Peter Pan

Jake Burgum’s over-worked stage manager, Trevor Watson, is as crucial to the physical comedy as Gareth Tempest’s Jonathan Harris, playing the scenery-endangering Peter Pan. Jamie Birkett’s Annie Twilloil is kept busy in four roles, whether swapping costumes at frantic pace when switching between Mary Darling and maid Lisa, or risking being electrocuted whenever Tinkerbell’s costume lights up, or popping up as Curly in a whirl.

Mischief’s comedy is as much about deconstruction as gradually dismantling Simon Scullion’s revolving stage, scene by scene, as props and furniture alike put cast members at physical risk, not least Jean-Luke Worrell’s Francis Beaumont, the narrator in rising fear of being nobbled by his seat as it speeds on stage.

Worrell, wide eyed and wider mouthed, is one of the great joys of this show, whether sprinkling glitter or fumbling for props with an hyena’s cackle in the piratical guise of Cecco.

Jack Michael Stacey, in the guise of Chris Bean, playing Captain Hook

In the spirit of theatre, the show must go on, no matter what goes wrong, and the more it goes wrong, the more the comedy goes right under Adam Meggido’s direction, slick on the one hand, slapstick on the other.

There is a risk of diminishing returns with Mischief’s template, even with the extra ingredient of sending up pantomime tropes and “He’s behind you” audience participation. In truth, Peter Pan Goes Wrong has to work harder than The Play That Goes Wrong and especially the gravity-defying, eye-deceiving The Comedy About A Bank Robbery to hit the comedy peaks.

Familiarity with the formula undermines the chance of surprise, but manic humour still abounds in this awfully big misadventure.

Trapped in a flap: Matthew Howell’s scene-stealing Nana the Dog