The setting is Cornley Polytechnic’s (do they still have those?) staging of the portentous and scary “The Murder at Haversham Manor”, a whodunit by Susie H. K. Brideswell, where Inspector Carter comes to solve the murder of at least one, maybe two, or maybe one again members of the Haversham household. Chris Bean, newly elected head of the Drama Society and all-round smug git, is delighted to welcome us to the show that he has directed, cast, done the costumes for, and choreographed the fight scenes. He has collected together the cream of Cornley’s acting talent for this brave artistic endeavour, which includes the stentorian tones of Robert Grove as Thomas Colleymoore, the hot sex appeal of Sandra Wilkinson as Florence, and the linguistic trickery of Dennis Tyde as Perkins the butler. They’ve even got a real life dog playing the part of Winston, a real life dog. Unfortunately, not everything goes entirely to plan.
In fact, nothing does! Take The Mousetrap and mix it with Noises Off, and you’ve pretty much got The Play That Goes Wrong. Before we set off for the theatre, Mrs Chrisparkle asked, “so, what is this then, a comedy?” Not much escapes her. “Something along the lines of Noises Off”, I suggested. That cheered her up, because we both love that play. I think we’ve seen it four or five times now, and every time it comes back as fresh as a daisy and riotously funny. But comparisons are odious, and although I laughed my way through the first act as much as anyone, I did spend the first twenty minutes or so thinking that this is not as good as Noises Off. So I suggest that if you have seen and love Noises Off, and intend to see The Play That Goes Wrong, just forget all about Noises Off and enjoy this play on its own terms. That’s what I decided to do after twenty minutes and the whole show took off for me at that moment.
I was completely duped by the opening. When we arrived at our seats there was some frantic last minute stage preparations going on by people in black with “Crew” on the back of their shirts. I knew this was the first night of the run here in Northampton and I genuinely thought that they hadn’t got the set entirely ready in time. What a plonker. I realised it was actually the play itself starting, when I turned to Mrs C and said “they’re having problems with the set” and she replied “it’s the play you idiot”. I thought it was going to go down a One Man Two Guvnors line when a member of the public was called upon by the Stage Manager to help repair the mantelpiece. I’ll say no more on that subject, so as not to spoil either play for you.
Every conceivable calamity you could think of that could possibly happen on a stage does happen on the stage right in front of you, plus many more that you couldn’t imagine. The resultant laughter from the audience is so loud and so sustained, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience enjoy itself so much in the Royal. The only reason you occasionally stop laughing is through sheer physical exhaustion – there’s only so much jollity one body can take. At the interval we met up with Lady Duncansby, her butler William, the Duchess of Dallington and her Estates Manager ghillie “Mr Brown”, who were all sitting in the cheap seats. They were still rippling with uncontrollable laughter in the bar. There were also some members of the cast carrying on mini playlets of their own around us – never seen that before, an extremely funny distraction from your halftime Merlot.
The real joy though from this production is watching a fantastic ensemble of eight young actors provide over two hours of gifted physical comedy, with split-second timing, a massive sense of the ridiculous, and a fearlessness to their performance which is quite remarkable. Like Noises Off – I know I said not to compare, but bear with me – each actor plays an actor who is performing in “The Murder at Haversham Manor”. So the programme gives you two lots of biographies and photos. Each member of the Haversham Manor cast is a thoroughly ham performer, speaking either too loud or too soft, with all the emphases in the wrong places, putting on an alluring but inappropriate sex vamp act, or being hideously shy in front of the audience. Disaster also necessitates the star struck Stage Manager and the Neanderthal Lighting/Sound man end up on stage too. However, the real actors – three of whom have actually written the play – are an incredibly talented bunch.
Henry Shields makes a wonderfully pompous Chris the director – soul-baringly truthful about telling us about all the terrible productions the team have put together in the past but clinging on resolutely that this show will be tremendously successful. As the inspector, he tries his best to keep order on the stage but it’s a big ask. Greg Tannahill is a wonderfully woefully inept Jonathan, playing the victim Charles Haversham, surreptitiously trying to move about the place whilst meant to be dead, constantly getting his cues wrong. Henry Lewis as Robert playing the Brian Blessed-like Thomas Colleymoore, is hilarious as the blunderingly unthinking actor who can’t remember his lines and says whatever he hears next. I loved Jonathan Sayer as Dennis, playing Perkins, with his inability to pronounce certain words and his thoroughly maniacal high-pitched exasperations. Charlie Russell’s Sandra, playing Florence, is a fabulously awful actress relying on pouting and sensuality to get through her basic lines; and, maybe, funniest of all, Dave Hearn’s Max playing Cecil, who slowly breaks into confident smiles whenever he feels he’s getting some star applause. His routine with Mr Lewis, taking a telephone call when all their hands are otherwise occupied, is a comedy dream.
There’s also a wonderful performance from Nancy Wallinger as Annie the Stage Manager, unwillingly (at first) bundled into the action but then her increasingly violent competitiveness with Miss Russell is completely hilarious. And last but not least Rob Falconer as Trevor the Lighting/Sound man, again trapped in the action, briefly having to play the starlet Florence at the moment Max has to kiss her (him). I woke up this morning laughing at that scene: “Just do it, mate, they’ve paid”. And, really, there’s a ninth member of the cast – Nigel Hook’s extraordinary set, which turns into its own nightmare on countless occasions. It’s very rare that a set alone can make you laugh so much.
There was an instant standing ovation from the audience. Mrs C and I don’t do ovations that often – they really have to be deserved for us to stagger to our feet – but there was no question in my mind that the cast totally merited it. This is a fantastically funny evening at the theatre. It’s on until the end of the week here in Northampton, and then going on to Cambridge, Bath, Darlington, Southend, Eastbourne and Leeds, before taking up residence at the Duchess Theatre in London in September. Genuinely brilliant.