The popular West End farce is Down Under – with a local cast putting their bodies on the line for laughs
English farce tends to veer towards outright slapstick, as anyone who caught the brilliant One Man, Two Guvnors would know. Lots of pratfalls, and falling down stairs. They’re also rather chaste affairs, in contrast to the bedroom variety favoured by the French; they may have the odd dalliance in there, but they’re rarely overtly sexual. This makes them perfect ‘all ages’ comedies, reliable if predictable entertainments that you can take your kids and your grandparents to. The Play that Goes Wrong fits neatly into this category, and while it’s in no way formally ambitious, it’s so bloody funny it hardly matters.
The set up is so simple it sounds like child’s play: an amateur dramatics society puts on a production called Murder at Haversham Manor, one of those hoary old plays popular in the post-war years. In every conceivable way, it is a disaster. Cue laughs.
Thankfully those laughs come early, with a bit of harmless audience participation involving a missing mantlepiece, and they don’t let up until the set has collapsed around the actors and the murder mystery has crashed through to its limp conclusion. For a play that really has only one joke – that when things go wrong you should just carry on, regardless – it is ingeniously inventive and consistently surprising. This is largely because the things that go wrong do so in very specific ways, with hilarious echoes long after the first laugh has been established: that mantlepiece that never gets put up before the show starts turns out to be quite necessary; a key prop falling off a wall escalates dramatically, until a whole floor becomes perilously unstable.
The performers, under the tight local direction of Sean Turner, throw everything at the piece. Brooke Satchwell is probably the most famous cast member, and she’s terrific as a ludicrously over-the-top siren, but no one is weak. Nick Simpson-Deeks milks the clipped vocals and emotional fragility of the inspector, George Kemp is suitably pained as the hapless butler, and James Marlowe is sublime as the bounding, unflappable brother of the victim. His demure grin and gestural flourishes perfectly capture an actor seduced by the spotlight.
The set, designed by Nigel Hook, is magnificent: on first view it looks precisely like a shoddy, low-budget piece of crap, but eventually the audience come to realise how clever it is. Things slide off the walls but others stick unexpectedly. Props swing wildly about, lifts explode and the whole thing ends in a beautiful tribute to Buster Keaton via Phantom of the Opera. It’s superbly choreographed mayhem.
Farce is only meaningful in its architecture; the construction is itself the point. This one, written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, is consummate. For a play titled The Play That Goes Wrong, this is a show where everything goes right. Precision is evidenced every time an actor tosses a prop across the stage, or gets hit in the face by an opening door. From an idea that seems unlikely to be sustained over ten minutes, the writers manage to extrapolate more than two hours of sustained hilarity.