Reviewed by Tony Peters
When it comes to the play-within-a-play scenario played out by incompetent actors, comparisons will inevitably be drawn with Michael Frayn’s masterpiece Noises Off, which pretty much took the idea as far as it could go.
You might think.
But as good as Frayn’s play is, I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that for sheer laughs-per-minute and inventive business, this hilarious production from Mischief Theatre equals, and at times surpasses, Noises Off.
The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society assembles for its production of Murder at Haversham Manor, a traditional country house whodunnit with a familiar cast of upper-class twit characters (the doddery butler, the jolly-hockey-sticks young gel and the stiff-upper-lipped detective) in the true Agatha Christie mould.
A well-used plot of murder, embezzlement and infidelity unfolds, but in the hands of the Cornley Drama Society things are reduced to chaos from the first moment.
Lines are forgotten, cues missed, while props and scenery take on lives of their own as the hapless bunch of thesbs gamely play on.
Every single member of the (real) eight-strong cast is at the top of their game here in what is a sublime display of physical comedy. The timing, so essential for this type of thing to work, is impeccable and the pace never lets up.
And yet behind the slapstick there lays a subtlety that anyone who has sat through a bad amateur dramatic performance or an interminable school play will surely “get”. The blank expressions when an actor isn’t “on” or everything played at one note despite what the words in the script might say — the wonderful Lotti Maddox.
Like the seemingly incompetent magic of Tommy Cooper or the off-key piano playing of Les Dawson, first you have to be really good before you can play it this bad — and this cast are very, very good.
The production fits the intimate space of the Old Red Lion Theatre perfectly, but this is a show that deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
It only lasts around an hour, but frankly I’d had enough by then. Not because things began to slack, but simply because I was in danger of physical harm from laughing.
Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Directed by Mark Bell
The Play That Goes Wrong plays at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 30th March.