photo © Helen Murray
As a frequent theatre reviewer I do often wonder whether I really understand the mood of the Norwich audience. I see some truly great shows, with rather too many empty seats nearby, then I sit dutifully through some dull stuff that seems to me unaccountably popular.
A few years back, spending rather too much time in London, I frequently found myself outside the theatre that gaudily advertised The Play That Goes Wrong and remember reflecting that this seemed to me to represent everything I would dislike about theatre.
So I settled back in my seat tonight fairly determined not to laugh, smile or get involved with what seemed to me an excessive air of jolly anticipation from the people sitting nearby. Even before we reached our seats I had observed some strange behaviour in the foyer from people who were plainly not normal for Norfolk, so may well have been of a theatrical bent.
The slack discipline of this production was evident from the start, with the curtain left up from rehearsals and some rather scruffy stage management staff still fossicking about with the set.
Ah. OK. This is called The Play That Goes Wrong.
Even this rather slow witted reviewer grasped that when an audience member was recruited to hold up a bit of the failing set that the tone had been set for the evening. I might have laughed a bit at that.
Around this time we were introduced properly to the drama to be set before us for the evening, the “Murder At Haversham Manor”, proudly directed by Chris Bean (Patrick Warner) for the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society. In classic am/dram style this murder mystery gives the small handful of ‘character’ actors an opportunity to show off their competitive stage skills while racing each other to an early finish. This, dear friends, is the ‘Art of Course Acting’ as set out so helpfully a half century ago by the wonderful Michael Green. Younger readers may need to consult their search engines, or butler, at this point.
By the time I had been able to remember that book the murder mystery was well under way. Well it was under way. A cast of six enthusiastic amateurs was augmented by two other key performers, the lighting and sound man Trevor (Graeme Rooney) and the delightfully named Annie Twilloil, stage manager extraordinaire. The murder mystery followed the classic and deeply unlikely Agatha Christie format of bunging a bunch of posh types into a sealed and suitably remote country house and then allowing the body count to build.
As the mayhem develops an unlikely star of this show emerges – the set! From the very start it is plain that the set and the actors are not wholly united in creative endeavour, and if something can go wrong with it, it will. And then some. It becomes clear that not a single part of the set can be trusted by the increasingly desperate cast as they struggle to keep smiling towards the audience.
A great deal of the charm of this show comes from acute observation of how amateur dramatic groups really do work. We are so used to the slick professionalism of TV and film drama that it is easy to underestimate the skills needed to get a live production looking smooth and effortless night after night. This play shows that it is even more difficult to do something deliberately bad or wrong on stage.
This cast need to be fit and and precise. The Play That Goes Wrong has a large amount of physical comedy, slapstick even. This is all great fun, and helps the perception that we are watching actors let their own characters come through (even though they are being acted by real actors…) as the exuberance of the amateur drama enthusiast is brought before us. Alastair Kirton as Max Bennett as Cecil Haversham is particularly florid in gesture, but then Max is bankrolling the Cornley production, so they have to put up with his coquettish asides to the audience.
The show climaxes with a relentless bout of physical mishap with obvious references to great silent film stars like Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. Every performer plays their part in this, with a co-ordination that is cunningly disguised as chaos and as the applause roars the real stage managers of this show are recognised as the hard working stars they are.
There are a number of sub plots that develop during the play, including a rather glorious girl fight between the female lead Sandra (Meg Mortell) and her unprepared understudy Annie (Katie Bernstein), and the tensions that arise between the Director and his co-stars.
So did I dislike this show? Of course not, it is a glorious romp that gets us all laughing, and is impressive in its technical skills and superb performances from a hardworking cast. The play is selling well, but if you can get a ticket you will enjoy one of the slickest stage performances around today.
©Julian Swainson 2017
The Play That Goes Wrong, Monday to Saturday, June 12-17, 2017, at 7.30pm. Mats Wed & Sat 2.30pm. Tickets £8-£28.50. BOX OFFICE 01603 630000. Discounts for Friends, Corporate Club, Over 60s, Under 18s, and Groups. Captioned Performance Wed, June 14, 2.30pm. For more info or to BOOK ONLINE www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk