The Play That Goes Wrong




















London Theater Journal: Laughing Wall to Wall


There’s nothing nuanced about “The Play That Goes Wrong,” a creation of the young and enterprising Mischief Theater troupe, and that’s a large source of its appeal. It starts off punch-drunk and just keeps getting drunker. Originally staged above a pub in north London two years ago, it is now ensconced at the Duchess Theater in the West End and seems likely to stay there for a while.

Its title is dead accurate. Most of the show, directed by Mark Bell, is a play-within-a-play (a moldy “Mousetrap”-style thriller performed by the fictitious Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society) that unfolds as a nightmarish series of mishaps. Lines are forgotten, props are lost, actors are injured, and the ramshackle scenery (by Nigel Hook) falls apart as if struck by a progressive earthquake.

The show’s premise is hardly new to farce. (It’s the basis of Michael Frayn’s blissful and far more sophisticated “Noises Off.”) And by rights, its slam-bang approach shouldn’t work as well as it does. Yet my audience (which included the sitcom queen Miranda Hart) roared pretty much nonstop.

Yes, I admit that I roared rather a lot myself. And honestly, that had nothing to do with the fact that at intermission, the actor playing the leading role handed me an envelope with my name on it. “I believe you dropped something,” he said ingratiatingly. Inside was a five-dollar bill (American money!), with a little note attached. It was labeled with a single word: “BRIBE.”

You Can Believe This Play's a Disaster


TUE MAR 28, 2017 •

The authentic farce of The Play That Goes Wrong

According to Mark Bell, farce is a high theatrical art. And he should know: As the director of The Play That Goes Wronga raucous new Broadway comedy – he spends his days treating the genre with the respect it deserves.

"What we're doing is what I call 'clown,'" says Bell. "Which, I don't mean 'circus clown.' It's about character comedy. The first thing we've done is we've found the characters: Who are the people doing this? And their job, really, is to be a slightly exaggerated reflection of who we are as real people."

The play-within-a-play, which is now in previews at the Lyceum Theatre, opens as the members of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society are about to, rather hastily, present a drama called The Murder at Haversham Manor. What follows is a two-act melee of physical, psychological, and (perhaps) sociopathic hijinks as the cast struggles just to get to curtain call.

A silly murder mystery wrapped in a production going awry, the show features characters dropping their lines, missing their cues, and falling about the set. But as the director states, these gags only work if the cast can make them look effortless. Each mistake needs to seem like a genuine mistake; each fall needs to seem like an actual slip of the feet.

Bell notes that achieving this sense of ease requires performers of incredible skill, and he feels he has a cast that finds the laughs while keeping the truth. "They don't just let anything be all right," he says. "They work for perfection every time, which of course is untenable."

So each time the character Max Bennett (a well-to-do airhead who's played by Dave Hearn) rams his head into a column — or nearly misses — it has a genuine comedic impact. Hearn makes running into a column, repeatedly, look not only real, but also painful each time. Meanwhile, as the set continues to deteriorate, sometimes shockingly so, the cast's determination to keep the play running feels authentic.

The cast of 'The Play That Goes Wrong'

"This is not what we call in England a 'kitchen sink drama,' where you see people acting as naturally as possible on stage," Bell says. "This is playing where the stakes are very high, but the characters need to be real people. That is very hard at that level. We will sacrifice jokes that are perfectly good if it helps makes the characters looks realistic."

The payoff for this effort can be immense. The Play That Goes Wrong has had great success in London, and the production, created by Mischief Theatre, now has one version in Australia and another on tour in the U.K.

"This language is very universal," Bell says. "There's something so engrained in the human psyche that when we're small children, the first thing you start to laugh at is someone falling over, someone getting something wrong. I do think that there's something very fundamental that we need to laugh at ourselves, and so we laugh at these characters we create that sort of do what we feel like we're doing all the time."

February 26, 2017

April 3, 2017

April 2, 2017

When your British farce is so old-school that you'd swear the whole pox of a post-colonial schoolhouse crumbled at least two generations ago, you need a title that helps justify why the picky punter should buy a ticket. And the latest import from London sure doesn't try to finesse anything: it's called "The Play That Goes Wrong," and that's what it is about, a disastrous production of some faux-Agatha Christie murder mystery by a collegiate dramatic society of rank, supremely untalented amateurs with a budget nowhere near the equal of their collective hubris.

But in actuality, that title doesn't do this nouveau-"Noises Off" justice. "The Play That Goes Wrong" is not a one-time occurrence. "Improbably produced" by J.J. Abrams, this is a show about a play that goes wrong, and then goes wrong again, and then goes wrong again, and then again, and then again, and again, and again, again, again.

Calamity is to this show as the metronome is to the student of the pianoforte. Collapse is to this production as the dance beat is to the club kid. Disaster is to this endeavor as Twitter is to Donald J. Trump.

A constant.

And it is that relentless constancy that sets this endeavor apart from other entries in the twin, mostly clapped-out genres that it so guilelessly taps — the backstage comedy and the mystery farce with the aristocratic characters. Why? Because "The Play That Goes Wrong," which was written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and has arrived on Broadway after West End success, goes wrong so many times, in such mellifluous ways, and with such far-gone commitment to physical comedy. The relationship between comedy and pain is much discussed. But while most people will leave "The Play That Goes Wrong" thinking they've just spent two hours in a world utterly removed from the cares of the American moment, which would be true, the deeper truth in play here is that they will have watched a show that really is about the theater's long-standing relationship with blind terror.

And, really, that's what makes this quite a remarkable farce — you get to watch a group of people press through the most impossibly awful circumstances, each of which compounds in awfulness verily by the second, and in so doing you start to think that maybe the day you are having yourself, or the week, or the year, really is not so bad after all. This, dear reader, is the rare farce with actual worth. A farce that bucks you up by reminding you of the great human capacity for resilience.

Which is not say that the actual play within a play has a plot you will remember. Or that any of this material is, ipso facto, either wildly original or distinguished. It's not. And there is room for debate about whether "The Play That Goes Wrong," with its all-white British cast, can reasonably be said to have inured itself against dusty and arguably redundant theatrical practices merely by satirizing them. Essays will be penned in objection thereto.

But the exceptional direction of the piece, by Mark Bell, embraces risk and danger to an extraordinary extent. That means "The Play That Goes Wrong" never seems safe or comfortable in its own skin — the tricked-out design by Nigel Hook is exceptionally clever and suffused with booby traps of considerable aesthetic imagination, but it remains persistently tawdry, as it should be, of course. And thus at no point is "The Play That Goes Wrong" one of those smug, accomplished London imports, sets collapsing on cue and well-spoken farceurs risking nothing.

Here all three of the writers are in the cast, which sets the tone right there (the most outre and effective performances, though, come from Dave Hearn and Nancy Zamit). For much of the night, you feel like you are watching the luckiest Broadway imposters in the world, and you probably are. Which is exactly why the show works.

Well, that and a collection of slaps and smacks that is singular in its volume, scale and intensity. The individual moments never are bravura enough to provoke guffaws alone. There is no James Corden in the cast. Everything to do with "The Play That Goes Wrong" is dependent on its localization within such an unyielding and determined procession of physical comedy and comedians that you are forced into laughing by the totting-up of so many worthy and vulnerable efforts to get you there. Characters are constantly getting hit by doors, mantelpieces, walls, other humans. Each time you think they've gone down for good but they always get up, trying to calm themselves and carry on as things go more and more wrong.

Not a bad metaphor, really, for how you might typify the moment in either the U.S. or Brexiting Britain, negotiating for what it thinks to be its right.

April 2, 2017

J.J. Abrams-Backed Comedy ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ Salutes Crude Mechanicals – Broadway Review

By: Jeremy Gerard

Like certain sanctified Hollywood creation myths — pretty girl, soda fountain, famous director — the one about going out a chorus girl and coming back a star retains a surefire audience appeal. Something like that has grown up around J.J. Abrams. A backstage encounter at Hamilton leads to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s commission to compose “Jabba Flow” for the bar scene in Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In London, Abrams sees The Play That Goes Wrong, and soon enough, a ramshackle comedy born as a pub frolic is opening on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre with a producing credit to Abrams worth a fortune in publicity.

It’s funny. Sometimes it’s very, very funny, though you have to keep the faith through an almost appallingly tin-eared and flat-footed first act to get to the good stuff, which includes collapsing scenery, man-handled bodies alive and presumed dead, immoderate consumption of paint thinner and the consequent spit-takes, a body in the grandfather clock and cameos by Duran Duran. Easy, if affectionate, laughs at the expense of amateur thespians is at least as old as Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals and evergreen as Michael Frayn’s Noises Off — both of which deserve a royalty from this elaborate piffle from a group aptly called Mischief Theatre, founded a decade ago by graduates of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

As the fake program-within-the-program informs us, we are in attendance at “The Cornley University Drama Society” presentation of “The Murder At Haversham Manor.” Who killed Charles Haversham (Greg Tannahill, as gifted a comedic corpse as you are likely ever to encounter)? And on the very night, no less, of his engagement soirée? Was it his flapper fiancée Sandra (busty, I think, Charlie Russell)? His brother Cecil (Dave Hearn, the group’s John Cleese, and that’s meant as high praise), who’s been bonking Sandra on the side? Perhaps the high-volume butler Perkins (high-volume actor Jonathan Sayer) or the affable Robert (Henry Lewis, the soft-boiled comforting presence)? Inspector Carter (Henry Shields, earnestness personified) will get to the bottom of things. Or probably not.

Two additional characters are required to fully gum up the works: Trevor (Rob Falconer, perfect), the none-too-sharp lighting man with an affection for the above-cited pop band and an inconvenient memory lapse where the live status of his head mic is concerned. And Annie (Nancy Zamit, who persists), the shy stage manager who goes all Eve Harrington when opportunity strikes. Of course, Nigel Hook’s brilliant self-destructing set is a character in its own right, and there are jauntily italicized costumes from Roberto Surace and finely calibrated lighting by Ric Mountjoy.

An overabundance of non-sensical sight gags, slow burns, pratfalls, missed cues, wink-winks and the like dull the viewer’s senses and drag out a sophomoric sketch that would be sharper and funnier at an intermissionless 80 minutes. On the other hand, staged with more commitment than panache by Mark Bell, The Play That Goes Wrong aspires to no higher goal than escapism untainted by North Korea, Trump, Putin, the opening of the baseball season, Neil Gorsuch, and possibly striking writers. As George W. Bush said, mission accomplished.

April 2, 2017

The Play That Goes Wrong: EW stage review

By: Isabella Biedenharn

The Play That Goes Wrong

TYPE: Stage



The Play That Goes Wrong, Broadway’s latest Olivier Award-winning West End import, actually starts before its official show time — setting the tone for an immersive, hilarious evening the minute you set foot in the Lyceum Theatre.

The show is a play-within-a-play, where we’re ostensibly watching The Cornley University Drama Society’s production of The Murder at Haversham Manor. As patrons settle into the theater, Drama Society members breeze about in a frantic dash to get everything in order. “Has anyone seen a little brown and white dog?” the ponytailed lighting and sound operator, Trevor (Rob Falconer), asks individual audience members at their seats. Across the aisle, a high-strung, mustachioed Brit (Henry Shields) admonishes the crowd for its sloppy attire; onstage, panic-stricken stage manager Annie (Nancy Zamit) tries to fix the defective set while hiding her face behind a notebook.

As far as plot goes, the (real) show’s title is a perfect summary: Pretty much everything you can imagine — and plenty of things you can’t — goes awry, from botched pronunciations to life threatening set malfunctions. (The pseudo-amateur set, designed by Nigel Hook, is like a magic show: I was dying to know how the perfectly timed bits of self-destruction worked, but at the same time, content to suspend disbelief and imagine the whole performance as inexplicably cursed.)

Of course, slapstick, door-slammed-in-face humor is only funny on its own for so long, and the writer-actors (Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Shields) seem to know it. The real brilliance of The Play That Goes Wrong is the series of unspoken stories happening amongst the Drama Society members, like when shy Annie, forced into an onstage role after another actor is injured, gradually warms to (and becomes obsessed with) the spotlight, or the way dim-witted Max Bennett (Dave Hearn) breaks into a goofy grin every time he gets a positive response from the audience, and then strives to replicate it. Even under an extra layer of character, Play’s actors manage to convey compelling personalities and neuroses for their Cornley players, all while making complicated choreography look like random chaos.

Admittedly, two hours of nonstop pandemonium gets exhausting, and even with the intriguing character development (or degeneration), the curtain comes as a bit of a relief. (You can only cringe so many times before getting a cramp.) But on the whole, The Play That Goes Wrong is just right: A ridiculously entertaining disaster. B+

April 3, 2017

Review: “The Play That Goes Wrong” Goes Right

By: Christian Lewis

“The Play That Goes Wrong,” which opened on April 2nd at the Lyceum Theatre is a transfer of a British production is guaranteed to be the talk of the town. The play is by a group of people (Mischief Theatre) about a group of people doing a play about a group of people—purposeful confusion aside, it is probably the most metathetrical play Broadway has ever seen. Although at its core it can seem like an updated “Noises Off,” since it is primarily about a group of actors disastrously trying to do a play, it goes beyond all its predecessors.

This production takes metatheatricality to a entirely new level. As audiences sat down, actors playing the light board operator, the stage manager, and the director walked through the house and on the stage, testing levels, looking for props (and a missing dog), fixing the set, and asking the audience about their day. Confused audiences members looked in their programs to find a fake dramaturgical note from the fake director about the fake group of students from the fake Cornely University Drama Society and their production of the fake play “Murder at Haversham Manor.” The next page has a fake cast list and fake bios from the fake actors playing the fake characters. Thank god, metatheater aside the playbill also included a real cast list and real information about the real actors—although the fake information for the Cornley students and production were much more amusing.

Unsurprisingly, everything about this play adheres to the standards of British farce. There’s the accents, the melodrama, the posing, the well-timed exits through many doors, that physical humor, the mystery, the scandal, and the class differences. But there’s a twist: everything goes wrong, and they mean everything. There are the things you may expect to go wrong: missed entrances, forgotten props, messed up lines, mispronunciations, and bad acting. Then there are the slight surprises: an incompetent techie who doesn’t play the light and sound cues correctly, a poorly built set, a door that will either refuse to open or refuse to stay shut (depending on which is most comedically inconvienient), and costume malfunctions. There there are the things that take everyone by complete surprise, but left audiences falling over laughing: actors getting repeatedly injured/knocked unconscious and replaces by the timid stage manager holding a script, a missing dog that everyone pantomimes, a jug of water accidentally replaced with paint thinner, an actor locked in a clock, a broken elevator, a second floor of the set that collapses, light fixtures that explode, and entire panels of set that come crashing down.

Their title promise that “everything goes wrong” and they certainty didn’t lie. Every single conceivable thing that could go wrong did. Then after that a massive amount of more, inconceivable things also went wrong. Throughout it all the entire audience could not stop laughing. This became even more funny when the actors onstage got alternatively mad at the audience for laughing at their failure (some even yelled), or alternatively became even hammier and tried to play to the laughs (one actor repeated anything the audience laughed and did so with a ridiculous grin looking at to the house).

More than most shows, this was absolutely an ensemble piece, and every member of the acting and creative team is deserving of praise, from the notable hilarious actors (Rob Falconer, Charlie Russel, Nancy Zamit, Greg Tannahill, and Dave Hearn) to the incredibly talented designers (sets by Nigel Hook, costumes by Roberto Surace, and lighting by Ric Mountjoy), to the ingenious writers (Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields), to the extremely talented director, Mark Bell. The comedy, stage magic, and physicality of this show was impeccably timed and shockingly precise, something not often achieved in the world of comedy.

For all of those who believe comedy has no place in high art or on Broadway, for those who feel British farce is dead, for those who hate metatheater, and who those who think that there are no good new plays out right now, go see “The Play That Goes Wrong,” it will prove you wrong. Without a doubt, “The Play That Goes Wrong” is the funniest play Broadway has ever seen.

April 2, 2017

What Goes Right With The Play That Goes Wrong

By: Jesse Green

Farce is not an acquired taste; even babies laugh at pratfalls. Rather, farce is the taste you fail to grow out of — and thank God, because sometimes only the stupidest fun will do. If this is one of those times, then “stupidest fun” should probably be plastered on the walls of the Lyceum, where The Play That Goes Wrong, a backstage comedy created by England’s Mischief Theatre Company, is opening tonight. It’s so ridiculous it makes you feel almost ashamed to love it.

But shamelessness is part of the job description of being human. Certainly the members of the (fictional) Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society are beyond embarrassment. These half-wit amateurs, whose understaffed previous productions have included Two Sisters and Cat, have now turned their attention to a (fictional) 1922 murder mystery called The Murder at Haversham Manor by one Susie H. K. Brideswell. (The actual play is by Mischief ensemble members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, all of whom appear in the production.) What we see onstage at the Lyceum is the Cornley’s attempt to get through opening night of the wheezy Mousetrap-like chestnut despite every kind of theatrical mishap that has ever been turned into a fond war story. These include, of course, missed sound cues and malfunctioning manor-house sets, but to say that

is like saying Götterdämmerung includes drama and ditties. The disasters that befall the play within The Play That Goes Wrong are cataclysmic: the nearly fatal collapse of a second-floor study, a prop mixup replacing Scotch with turpentine, and a leading lady who, having been knocked unconscious, is replaced by the stage manager until she, too, is knocked unconscious. The role then goes to a sound technician and, eventually, a grandfather clock.

The tumble from slapstick into absurdity — or is it an elevation? — is the best part of The Play That Goes Wrong, and the part that is most reminiscent of such great English-language farces as Noises Off (wonderfully revived last year at the Roundabout) and even The Importance of Being Earnest. Comedies like these at some point achieve a kind of liftoff that leaves their specific circumstances far below as the characters find themselves trapped in orbit in verbal dilemmas that approximate the existential ones of characters in Beckett. They happen most wonderfully in The Play That Goes Wrong at two especially hilarious moments. In one, a scene between the police inspector and the young woman whose fiancé has been murdered slips out of sync for more than a page when the actress jumps her cue:

FLORENCE COLLEYMOORE: When you love someone there’s no such thing as rushing, Inspector.

INSPECTOR CARTER: Did you ever think you were rushing into this marriage?

FLORENCE COLLEYMOORE: Why wouldn’t I love him?

INSPECTOR CARTER: Did you love him, then?

Later, the idea is elaborated when four of the actors get lost in a Groundhog Day loop of idiotic dialogue that repeats and repeats with mounting hysteria as they desperately look for a way out. In such moments, The Play That Goes Wrong uses purely formal means — not stage tricks — to exploit the anxiety of existence for great humor.

Not that the stage tricks aren’t fun; who doesn’t love to see a floorboard spring out of the floor and whack an actor in the face? Or, for that matter, see that same ninny actor so thrilled when he gets a laugh that he can’t stop beaming — and trying for more? (That’s Dave Hearn stealing the show as Max Bennett, who plays Cecil Haversham, the dead man’s brother.) But those tricks and carefully rehearsed ineptitudes are not, in the end, deeply satisfying, however well achieved they are. (Nigel Hook’s booby-trapped set should get either a Tony award or a cease-and-desist order from OSHA.) They’re mechanical and shocking where the greatest farces are spiritual and inevitable.

The authors seem to understand this in theory; in a note to the script they write that “the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society are not bad actors” and that the comedy works best when it is presented as “‘the play that goes wrong,’ not ‘the play that’s being done badly.’” You see that in bits like the one when the elevator to the second-floor study breaks down, forcing the actors to ad lib a set of stairs that doesn’t exist, then “climb down” it sublimely. But for the most part the production doesn’t bear that out. The tech guy (Rob Falconer) is a boob who misses his cues because he’s playing with his smartphone; the costumes (by Roberto Surace) are intentionally awful; and the acting by the Cornley players is sub-high-school grotesque. Charlie Russell as Sandra Wilkinson as Florence the bereaved fiancée gives us Martha Graham crossed with epilepsy when she’s having her emotional “episodes”; Jonathan Sayer as Dennis Tyde as Perkins the Butler frequently “breaks” — cracks up out of character — in an obviously studied way to delight the audience. He also mispronounces ordinary words like ominous and façade, the latter somehow turned into an unlikely vulgarity.

Though they let too much air out of the concept, shriveling somewhat its effectiveness and diminishing it buoyancy, I laughed at all of those things, much in the way I laugh at the anything-goes attitude of Fawlty

Towers. (With his slow burn and megalomaniacal tendencies, Henry Shields as the inner show’s director, producer, designer, and lead performer may remind you of John Cleese.) And I guess the Mischief folks know what they’re doing; the show has run continuously at various London venues since its premiere in 2012, and they’ve had follow-up hits there with a similarly conceived Peter Pan Goes Wrong and a non-Cornley play called The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. To plump for a purer version of farce thus seems farcical in itself, and also ungrateful. Why ask for the moon? We have the stairs.

The Play That Goes Wrong is at the Lyceum Theatre.

April 3, 2017

April 3, 2017


By: Michael Musto

Pure entertainment from the UK comes in the form of The Play That Goes Wrong, a hilarious romp about eye-poppingly shoddy theatrics, co-written by Mischief Theatre company members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. In presenting the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s version of an alleged 1920s mystery, The Murder at Haversham Manor, this play owes a lot to Noises Off, the oft-revived 1993 comedy about the outrageous mishaps that occur during an extremely amateurish production of a travesty called Nothing On.

But while Noises Off gives us backstories between all the actors and other creatives en route to showing them performing for an audience, this one simply delivers the play-with-in-a-play itself, starting with an actor’s announcement that this is from the same company that brought you scaled down versions titled Cat, James and the Peach, and Chekhov’s Two Sisters, and ending with the entire cast bruised, distraught, in chaos, but taking a bow. Along the way, every manner of screwup happens, like mispronunciations, tilting set pieces and actors being knocked out by the other actors’ careless gestures. (When the siren, Sandra, played by Charlie Russell, is made unconscious, the stage manager, Nancy Zamit, throws on a red dress and comes out with a

script, imitating the character’s twitchy “episodes” to the point where she becomes enamored of this new thesping opportunity. Ultimately, there are two actresses playing the part at once, to riotous effect). As in Noises Off, that character strikes dumb, sexy poses, and also, the behind the scenes person becomes part of the show.

But this play goes even farther with regard to hair-trigger, precisely choreographed bits that are howlingly funny. Since the premise is so thin, I didn’t think Act Two could sustain the same level of mirth, but somehow it did, keeping up a giddily daft Carol Burnett Show-style slapstick throughout. Something as silly as this could only work if it was put together with serious craft, and it was, like a pristinely assembled jigsaw puzzle that, when put together, makes you scream with laughter. Kudos to director Mark Bell, scenic designer Nigel Hook—and Duran Duran.

April 2, 2017

‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ on Broadway Is So Right

By: Tim Teeman

‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ is a chaotic satire of both country house murder mysteries, and small-scale theater companies and thespians. It is tremendously silly, and brilliant.

Of all the most cherished exports of British popular culture, none comes with as much well-dressed murder and mayhem as the country house murder mystery.

As customized by such great writers as Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collin, and P.D. James, the genre’s fans know the setup. A group of strangers, usually upper-class and packed with simmering passions and enmities, is gathered in a smart drawing room.

A murder has been committed, so whodunnit? Here comes a doughty detective to bring all the suspects together. The answer includes a host of red herrings, unexpected villains, secret lovers, long-lost relatives, suddenly revealed heirs, and a complex back story which holds the solution.

The form, as the riotous British transplant The Play That Goes Wrong shows, written by cast members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, is ripe for satire. Preceding this delicious slice of farce and satire—a production of the British Mischief Theatre, with J.J. Abrams as a Broadway co-producer—there have been scattered examples like Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, from the pen of Julian Fellowes, a template itself for Downton Abbey. Who can forget the death therein—wrapped up in a rug as he was—of poor Mr. Pamuk?

The Play That Goes Wrong, like Hound, is a play within a play, sending up both the conventions of the genre and the poor-funded, unprofessional execution of The Murder at Haversham Manner, a murder mystery by the fictional and utterly inept and hapless “Cornley University Drama Society,” who have the grandest of ambitions, and the worst of executions—pun intended.

One cast list within the play’s program features all the fictional members of the Drama Society, another the real actors and founders of the Mischief Theatre. The general confusion is deliberate. Give yourself over to it.

You know you’re in for an evening of disaster when members of the cast roam among the audience at the beginning of the show, asking for our help if we see a missing dog. Hapless stage hands—Trevor (Rob Falconer) and Annie (Nancy Zamit) are at loggerheads over scenery that doesn’t work, like a crummy door. A plank is urgently hammered into place.

Then the mustachioed Chris (Henry Shields), the Drama Society chief, appears to talk up what we are about to see: think John Cleese at his most awkward and potentially explosive as Basil Fawlty from classic British comedy Fawlty Towers. He ends up revealing more about the society’s lackluster productions, like a production of James and The Giant Peach that because of budget issues became James and The Peach.

He breaks character at one point, to furiously reprimand us for telling his character where a key clue is, and for laughing at him and the chaos on stage. We are to shut up, he shouts: This is serious drama, and no laughing matter.

The Play That Goes Wrong features an utterly terrible fictional script executed utterly terribly by a terrible group of fictional actors, enveloped in a real-life brilliant script executed brilliantly by a very real and very brilliant group of actors. You only realize you’ve been smiling, gasping, and laughing for nearly two hours when it comes to not smiling upon your return to the regular world.

This is a two-hour explosion of physical comedy, malapropisms, and knockabout satire. Prepare for Trevor’s beloved Duran Duran—he even has posters in his tech eyrie to the top left of the stage—to play at the worst moments.

If the manor’s upper level study looks precarious, that’s because it is, and in one of the play’s most bravura moments the sublimely basso profundo Henry Lewis must prevent it from complete collapse, plant pots and all.

Florence (Charlie Russell), the femme fatale, keeps getting knocked out—and so Annie takes her place, appallingly at first, but slowly she becomes more confident, until both women are playing her on stage at once, trying to murder one another in real life.

The alcohol on stage is actually, mistakenly, paint thinner. Inspector Carter (Shields) haplessly amasses clues. Charles the murder victim (Greg Tannahill) is trampled on, sat on, and eventually falls to the ground after another physical bungle. Each time, his hapless portrayer removes himself from the stage, in as much corpse-like fashion as possible.

Then there is Max Bennett, the actor playing Charles’s brother (in reality, Dave Hearn), who keeps forgetting to stay in character, and instead laps up the audience applause, enjoying that more than the exigencies of performance.

The more he figures out what we like—little jigs, wild gesticulations—the more he does. The actor playing Perkins the butler (Dennis Tyde—really Jonathan Sayer) cannot pronounce the words he writes on his palms, and observes them with a terrified grimace: “cyanide” becomes “kyaneedee.”

The best scene—and this is no idle high bar to set—is when Perkins keeps fluffing his line at a key moment. The actors decide to keep going round in circles with the script until he manages to get the line right, which will allow the drama to move on. This goes on for some minutes, the hysteria increasing excruciatingly, until… well, it would be wrong to reveal too much about The Play That Goes Wrong. And yes, the murderer is revealed at the end—but only after The Murder at Haversham Manor has itself been resoundingly killed and dismembered. That distant cackle you can hear is Agatha Christie’s.

The Play That Goes Wrong is at the Lyceum Theatre

April 2, 2017

'The Play That Goes Wrong': Theater Review

By: Frank Scheck

J.J. Abrams is among the Broadway transfer producers of this hit British comedy about an amateur theater troupe's disastrous attempt at staging a murder mystery.

Something went wrong for me at The Play That Goes Wrong. For more than two hours, I managed only a few chuckles while hundreds of people surrounding me were laughing uproariously. Humor is obviously very subjective, but the experience was nonetheless a bit humbling, especially considering the comic mayhem on display was perfectly executed.

The show has been a big hit in London, where it won several prizes including the 2015 Olivier Award for best new comedy. Devised by the Mischief Theatre, founded by a group of graduates of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), it arrives on Broadway courtesy of a lineup of heavyweight producers that includes J.J. Abrams.

Featuring the original West End cast, the evening purports to be a production by “The Cornley University Drama Society” of an original, vintage-style murder mystery dubbed The Murder at Haversham Manor. The

play is proudly introduced by its director, Chris Bean (Henry Shields), who, according to the fake program, assumes virtually every other creative role as well, including prop maker and box office manager. In addition to the cast of hapless thespians, there’s also a stage manager (Nancy Zamit) and an incompetent sound/lighting operator (Rob Falconer) who’s mainly concerned with his missing Duran Duran CD.

The conceit — the only idea, really — of The Play That Goes Wrong is that, well, everything goes crazily wrong. An onstage corpse refuses to stay still. Props go missing or fail to function properly. Words get mispronounced, cues get missed, and any of the actors silly enough to stand next to a closed door gets knocked unconscious when it suddenly opens. Paint thinner stands in for booze, with the result that the actors are constantly spitting it out. The stage manager is forced to go on for the injured leading lady (Charlie Russell) — she stood next to a door, naturally — only to find herself adrift when she drops the pages of her script. When the leading lady wakes up and tries to resume her role, a catfight of epic proportions breaks out. As for the set — houses of cards are more sturdily constructed.

Written by three of the castmembers, the show bears no small debt to Michael Frayn’s classic farce, Noises Off, but it pales by comparison. Revived on Broadway in 2016, Noises Off showed what was going on backstage as well as on, and gave us characters and situations we actually cared about. This effort is pure slapstick from first moment to last, and wears very thin over a two hour-plus running time. It originally began as a fringe show in a theater located at a pub, and it’s easy to imagine that it played much better with a few drinks under one’s belt and at half the running time.

The production certainly fulfills its modest creative aspirations. The actors are very good at being bad and are so daring with the outrageous physical comedy that we often fear for their safety. There’s no paucity of wit to the proceedings, and director Mark Bell stages the action with clockwork precision. Nigel Hook’s purposefully cheesy set design deserves special commendation, rivaling Disney’s Haunted Mansion with the ingenuity of its surprises.

But for all the strenuous effort involved, the repetitive show evaporates in your mind the moment it concludes. At one point in the evening, a performer breaks the fourth wall and yells at us with mock consternation for laughing at what is supposed to be a serious play. Angrily addressing one audience member while pointing to another, he scolds, “Why can’t you be like that man? 45 minutes, and he hasn’t laughed once.” Although he wasn’t, he might well have been referring to me.

April 5, 2017


By: Michael Schulman

“Firstly, I would like to apologize to those of you involved in our little box-office mixup,” a tuxedoed man with a posh accent tells us. “I do hope the six hundred and seventeen of you affected will enjoy our little murder mystery just as much as you would have enjoyed”—he shudders a little—“ ‘Hamilton.’ ”

The show is “The Play That Goes Wrong,” a combustible farce from the Olivier-winning troupe Mischief Theatre that has just opened on Broadway, at the Lyceum, having originated above a pub in North London. By the time that Chris (Henry Shields, who co-wrote the show with Jonathan Sayer and Henry Lewis) gives his pre-show speech, plenty has already gone wrong. Ushers have passed out photos of Winston, a thespian canine who has gone missing. And stagehands have pulled an audience member onstage to hold up a mantelpiece that keeps falling off the set.

As Chris informs us, we’re at the opening night of “Murder at Haversham Manor,” a hoary nineteen-twenties whodunit staged by the ostentatiously inept Cornley University Drama Society. (Owing to limited resources,

we’re told, the society’s previous productions have included “The Lion and the Wardrobe” and “Cat.”) “The Play That Goes Wrong” is a bit hoary, too—it’s an intricately planned fiasco in which doors slam, cues go haywire, actors get bonked on the head and fall through windows, and every inch of the musty drawing-room set (by Nigel Hook) is destined to come crashing down.

Of course, it takes incredible skill to pull off such bungling, and Mark Bell’s production nails every spit take and sight gag. (This is one of those genres that Brits just do better—you need those plummy accents to paper over the mayhem.) The moment that “Murder at Haversham Manor” begins, it falls to pieces. The actor playing the murder victim can’t seem to play dead. The flapper heroine (Charlie Russell, looking like Michelle Dockery in the later seasons of “Downton Abbey”) gets knocked unconscious, so a mousy stagehand steps in, script in hand. A bottle of prop booze somehow gets replaced by paint thinner. Through it all, the Cornley players gamely attempt to get things on track. An introductory note in the script reveals the secret to comedic success: “Always try to tell the murder-mystery story and play the Haversham Manor characters. Without that solid structure to support the comedy the show will unravel.”

Done right, the backstage farce is one of the most blissful forms of entertainment in existence. Last season, the Roundabout staged a fine revival of “Noises Off,” Michael Frayn’s 1982 masterpiece, starring Andrea Martin. Frayn’s genius was to multiply an already labyrinthine form by two: the action follows a hapless theatre troupe performing a sex farce called “Nothing On,” whose machinations are mirrored by the chaos behind the scenes. Over three acts, we flip from onstage to backstage and then onstage again—a door-slamming farce within a door-slamming farce.

“The Play That Goes Wrong” is more straightforward: we learn very little about the actors performing “Murder at Haversham Manor,” and we don’t get to see what’s going on in the wings. Where Frayn went for three dimensions, Mischief Theatre settles for two—but that’s enough to sustain both acts, just barely. The show is pure comedic eye candy, and technically flawless. It’s closer to synchronized swimming or fight choreography than to its more contemplative theatrical cousins, revealing almost nothing about the human condition.

Or does it? Again, from the script notes:

We’ve also found that it’s useful to remember that the actors . . . are not bad actors but the victims of unfortunate circumstance. The comedy comes from their unwavering endeavour to continue, their bad choices in trying to get out of the situations they find themselves in, and their optimistic belief that their luck will change.

Like Kabuki theatre, “farce” has been deployed so often as a political metaphor that it’s gotten a bad rap. It’s nice to see it restored to its giddy old self, even if what’s going on in Washington is, in a less happy way, a farce. What can we do but “endeavour” onward, in the optimistic belief that our luck will change?

April 3, 2017

The Play That Goes Wrong review at Lyceum Theatre, New York – ‘deliriously funny’

By: Mark Shenton

No other show gets so much right by getting so much wrong. The Play That Goes Wrong has been turning the stuff of disaster into comic triumph for three years in the West End.

It has spawned a whole slew of shows from its creators, Mischief Theatre. Last Christmas the company presented three separate productions in London.

This, the company’s first little show – originally seen at London pub theatre, the Old Red Lion – has grown over the past five years, but the central idea, the implosion of a theatrical production, remains intact.

The premise is beautiful in its simplicity. The Cornley University Drama Society (formerly a Polytechnic, renamed for an American audience) is trying and failing to produce a stage murder mystery, and anything that

can go wrong does go wrong. This includes the near total collapse of the constantly malfunctioning set. Nigel Hook's impressive design gives a strong performance in its own right.

The ensemble, imported from London and led by co-authors, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, are all adept physical comedians. It takes great actors to look this terrible.

In London, it is playing at one of the West End’s smallest playhouses, and feels full of homespun charm. On Broadway, on a larger stage, it seems to have found the courage to take even bigger risks.

The result is not just the funniest play on Broadway at the moment, but also one that demonstrates that the London fringe can still act as a launch pad to bigger things. Broadway is sure to take this show to its heart. A long run seems likely.

April 2, 2017

The Play That Goes Wrong

By: Zachary Stewart

Britain's Mischief Theatre brings its disaster of a show to Broadway.

Few things are more entertaining than a real turkey: a mess of a play that's so bad, it's good. That seems to be what U.K.-based Mischief Theatre is going for with The Play That Goes Wrong, a spectacular theatrical catastrophe now imploding at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre.

As you've probably surmised from the title, this is a planned demolition (and an exceedingly well-executed one at that). Mischief Theatre has made a name for itself trafficking in such artful failure: The Play That Goes Wrong is now playing its third year of an extended run on London's West End, while its Peter Pan Goes Wrong has become a seasonal hit that was recently broadcast on the BBC. The company's The Comedy About a Bank Robbery (they're all about truth in advertising) is also enjoying an open West End run, making Mischief nothing short of a theatrical sensation in the U.K. But does their comedy translate across the pond?

The short answer is yes, owing in no small part to the extraordinary efforts of the cast (most of the core company members have come over for this Broadway debut). Before we even take our seats, we see them scurrying across the stage, attempting to stabilize the rickety set for The Murder at Haversham Manor, the fictitious 1920s murder mystery that will be sacrificed on the altar of comedy. The details of that third-rate whodunit are unimportant, and we regularly lose the plot in the melee. Suffice it to say, it's a Broadway debut that makes Moose Murders look like an unequivocal success.

Before the show begins, we meet Chris Bean (Henry Shields), president of the Cornley University Drama Society, the troupe producing The Murder at Haversham Manor. He's also the director, costume designer, voice coach, and lead actor (always a bad sign). And yep, from the moment we see Jonathan (Greg Tannahill) stumble onstage and collide with a chaise longue during a stray lighting cue, we know that this is going to be a disaster (he's supposed to be playing Charles Haversham, a character who is supposed to be dead). With the set falling down and the actors tripping over one another, it's already Act 3 of Noises Off, and we've barely dissolved our mints.

Intentionally or not, The Play That Goes Wrong invites comparison to that ultimate backstage farce by Michael Frayn. The script (penned by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields) seems to lift certain bits directly from the 1982 comedy, like when two actors appear simultaneously onstage, playing the same role. Of course, Noises Off is a much slower build, acquainting us with the backstage drama in the first act before allowing it to infiltrate the play-within-a-play in the following two. By the end, we find ourselves ambushed with laughter. In many ways, it is a more satisfying experience than The Play That Goes Wrong, which bolts out of the gate at 100 percent. We wonder how on earth the performers are going to sustain this level of lunacy.

Remarkably, they do. All three authors appear in the show, leading an ensemble composed entirely of skilled practitioners of an old-style of physical comedy, the kind mostly only seen in Buster Keaton movies and reruns of I Love Lucy. Their comic timing is so precise you can't help but laugh. Their pratfalls are so real, you can't help but gasp.

The two fearless ladies of the cast, Charlie Russell and Nancy Zamit, go in for the most sustained punishment of the night, crashing into the set and each other. Russell portrays Sandra Wilkinson, an 11th-year student who is playing the role of simpering flapper Florence Colleymoore in Murder at Haversham Manor. When a close encounter with a door sidelines Sandra for the better part of an hour, stage manager Annie (Zamit) takes over. At first appearing nervous, she increasingly relishes life under the stage lights. We love hearing her break up the other actors' overwrought Received Pronunciation with her thick Lancashire accent, cheerily delivering lines like, "How will I go on? Sobs." You'll howl with laughter.

Director Mark Bell marshals an impressive amount of stagecraft for a play that regularly makes us squirm in our seats out of a palpable sense of real danger. Nigel Hook seems to have modeled his multilevel set after the Milton Bradley board game, 13 Dead End Drive: Unsecured scenery and combustible light fixtures are a constant threat. Roberto Surace's costumes are durable enough to survive Bell's extreme staging while also conjuring a Downton Abbey-themed dinner party: Sandra is Lady Mary during aperitifs; Annie is Lady Mary after her fifth brandy. Composer Rob Falconer (who also hilariously portrays light and sound operator Trevor Watson) underscores the most dramatic moments of Murder at Haversham Manor with appropriately cheesy dinner-theater music, although the track occasionally cuts away to a certain new wave band of dubiously enduring popularity.

The Play That Goes Wrong isn't a brilliant comedy, but you're going to laugh anyway. This is two hours of unapologetic, stupid fun, buoyed along by a cast of ultra-committed performers. It's a fitting key ingredient for this affectionate sendup of the thespian ethos of going on with the show, no matter what.

April 5, 2017

‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ Review: Hectic Whodunit Humor

By: Ed Rothstein

An isolated mansion in a snowstorm, a dead body and a killer at large add up to a laugh-filled slapstick show.

‘This is a serious play!” one of the characters yells out at the riotously laughing audience in the middle of “The Play That Goes Wrong,” “And you’re ruining it!!” Hardly, on both counts.

But you feel some sympathy for the fellow. At the beginning of the evening, he introduced himself as the director of the Cornley University Drama Society, a group of dedicated British thespians who regularly present community theater and who, we learn, are about to stage a “thrilling whodunit,” “The Murder at Haversham Manor. ” Since this is a low-budget company, he has a part; so do the stagehands.

And given the 1920s set before us—the coat of arms over the door, the mounted dueling swords, the velvet curtains—we know the drill. An isolated mansion in a snowstorm. A dead body. A killer at large. Everyone is a suspect. Everyone has a motive. Then another murder takes place.

Alas, death is the least of the cast’s problems. If murderers have rules, so do actors. If something goes wrong, you work around it, ignore it, or use it. You keep the play going. You improvise or wait for cues. Only in this case, glitches never cease. There are wardrobe malfunctions, prop malfunctions, set malfunctions and many, many brain malfunctions.

During the pre-play blackout, lights come on prematurely as an actor trips on the way to the couch where his dead body is supposed to be discovered. Everyone who walks past the corpse ends up stepping on his outstretched hand as he strains to remain deceased.

Another actor is seemingly knocked unconscious by a malfunctioning door and a stage hand has to fill in, but the replacement barely knows the play, drops the script and its pages are scattered. Yet another actor forgets his cues and keeps reappearing at the wrong moment, giving away the plot. The police inspector asks for a pencil, but there is only a set of keys available—so everyone pretends it is something he can write with. By the end, one actor is nearly naked, her mouth sealed with duct tape by a rival; another must deliver casual lines while trying to avoid plunging off an elevated piece of the set that has come unmoored; and stagehands have run out of the torn paper to toss in the air outside the window to represent falling snow.

One might suppose in such murder cases that the butler did it, but in this case, that character is seemingly played by such a stage novice that he conspicuously consults scribbled words on his hand and infallibly mispronounces them (“His smile,” he says of the dead man, “was often merely a fuh-cade [façade]”). And through it all, suspects are questioned and motives unveiled—though the greatest challenge becomes hearing the dialogue beyond the well-justified laughter.

Silliness? Slapstick? Sure, but also a tribute to the valiant pseudo-professionalism of this imagined troupe. There is a long tradition of such play-acting farce going back past Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and extending through Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” (1982). In this case, though, context is unimportant and so are relationships; there is no sentiment and no time for reflection. Aside from that, what Buster Keaton did with clock hands and Charlie Chaplin did with an old boot this cast accomplishes with murder.

But whodunit?

The real players, based in England, are known as Mischief Theatre, led by its artistic director, Henry Lewis, and company director Jonathan Sayer. The group began in 2008 with improvisatory comedy, which provided, no doubt, excellent training for this enterprise. Its directors were joined by Henry Shields to write the play (and act in it), which is now in its third year on London’s West End. Enough has gone right to lead to two other plays by the same group, neither of which—perhaps thankfully—seems to indicate growing maturity: “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” and “The Comedy About a Bank Robbery.” As for this production (with the original West End cast), one much-noted surprise is one of its producers, J.J. Abrams, who has been more associated, of late, with writing, directing or producing “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” films.

But this play may be as fantastical and its action sequences as frenziedly choreographed. Mark Bell’s direction keeps an unrelenting pace that leaves the audience breathless and the actors clueless. Nigel Hook’s disarmingly simple set gives “deconstruction” a meaning having nothing to do with French literary criticism. And a roundup of the unusual suspects?

Mr. Shields, as “director” and police inspector, almost channels John Cleese (and “Fawlty Towers”). Mr. Sayer’s butler is so busy reading his palm he doesn’t realize he is pouring “stiff drinks” for the grieving manor residents from a bottle labeled “paint thinner.” Mr. Lewis, as brother of the victim’s fiancée, doesn’t look the

athletic type, but there might have been other dead bodies on stage if he weren’t. Dave Hearn, as the victim’s brother, appears to have taken all his acting lessons very seriously and loves playing to the crowd. As the not-so-sorrowful fiancée, Charlie Russell is prone to hysterical fits that lead her to caress her tight dress and rotate her hips—a condition that is enacted with different effect when Nancy Zamit, a stage manager, has to step into her role. Rob Falconer, who is less than proficient handling sound and light for the company, locates his missing “Duran Duran” CD at a most inopportune moment. And Greg Tannahill shows that even impersonating a corpse requires some life.

All of them—guilty as charged.