Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Play That Goes Wrong

The Play That Goes Wrong by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields at Canberra Theatre, April 25 – 30, 2017.

Mischief Theatre (London, UK) presented by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, Kenny Wax Ltd and Stage Presence in association with David Atkins Enterprises and ABA International Touring.

Director: Mark Bell.  Australian Cast Director: Sean Turner.  Designers: Set – Nigel Hook; Costume – Roberto Surace; Lighting – Ric Mountjoy; Composer – Rob Falconer; Sound – Andy Johnson; Technical Consultant – Alan Bartlett.

Cast – The Play That Goes Wrong (Murder at Haversham Manor):

Darcy Brown – Jonathan Harris (Charles Haversham)
Francine Cain – Maggie (Understudy Maggie)
Adam Dunn – Trevor Watson (Lighting/Sound Operator Trevor Watson)
Luke Joslin – Robert Grove (Thomas Colleymore)
George Kemp – Dennis Tyde (Perkins)
James Marlowe – Max Bennet (Cecil Haversham / Arthur the Gardener)
Jordan Prosser – William (Understudy William)
Brooke Satchwell – Sandra Wilkinson (Florence Colleymore)
Nick Simpson-Deeks – Chris Bean (Inspector Carter)
Tammy Weller – Annie Twilloil (Stage Manager)
Matthew Whitty – Lincoln (Understudy Lincoln)

Rear L to R: Darcy Brown, Nick Simpson-Deeks, Luke Joslin, Adam Dunn

Front L to R: George Kemp, James Marlowe, Brooke Satchwell, Tammy Weller

in The Play That Goes Wrong

Photos by Jeff Busby

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 25

May the farce be with you.

It certainly was with the literally shrieking audience filling the main Canberra Theatre auditorum with continuous laughter, or with shock and awe reactions as more and bigger bits fell off the set. 

So I will seem somewhat curmudgeonly to say this is not the best of farce as farces go.  But first, before my farcical analysis, I must praise the professional theatricality on stage and off.

In the first place, I’m guessing, credit must go to Mark Bell and Sean Turner from London.  Mark trained at École Internationale de Théâtre, Jacques Lecoq ‘and runs regular weekend and summer courses in clown....’  Of the ten (or is it eleven?) actors, only James Marlowe is an original from Mischief Theatre, George Kemp trained in London but works in Australia and Adam Dunn comes from New York, while the other eight are Australian trained.

Just imagine Lecoq at work, and you will know what I mean when I say you can see that French tradition in mime, movement and sense of absurdity in ordinary actions coming through.  It’s then very much to the credit of the actors that everyone has found the style, timing and teamwork needed to make the laughter flow – whether from wild physicality or from sustained stillness.  It’s their skill that makes the show so successful.

In the second place, I’m sure Nigel Hook must have been pleased to have the services of the Head of Technical Design from the Royal Shakespeare Company, engineer Alan Bartlett, as consultant.  I was amazed to see how complex the set design and construction has to be, especially considering this is a touring company.  Everything has to fall to bits in exactly the right way at the exact right time – the exact opposite, of course, of what the play’s title implies.  I must say I had dire thoughts of OH&S issues, so I hope it all continues to go right on the nights from here on. 

It was a bit worrying to note that Matthew Whitty is listed in the cast in the $20 Program, but is not present on the Media Release for the Canberra Theatre season.  Whatever happened to him?  Is it only the program that’s gone wrong?

A bit on the side, now.  I stole the word ‘curmudgeonly’ from well-known Canberra Times columnist Ian Warden with another of his ideas in mind – the Faculty of Inconsequential Studies at some unidentified university.

I’ll get there shortly, but first I just mentioned the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-Upon-Avon, where by chance I am booked to see Antony and Cleopatra in May. 

I’m paying AUD$80 per seat, while for tomorrow night (April 27,2017) at the Dutchess Theatre in London I could have got in to see The Play That Goes Wrong for AUD$40 if I’d booked early enough.  There are still some $90 seats left, as well as quite a few at $133.  So I wonder about value for our money when the cheap seats at the back of B Reserve in Canberra are $90 – though it’s true that the dearest only go up to $120 (so long as you don’t count the extra $4.95 booking fee!)

My mentioning this is not a criticism of the production of The Play That Goes Wrong in Australia, of course.  But the comparison with the quality of the play at the Royal Shakespeare takes me back to the question of inconsequential farce.  I have seen two plays in Sydney in recent weeks, both reviewed here, which are excellent farces – The Rasputin Affair by Australian Kate Mulvany (Ensemble Theatre, April 11) and Hysteria by English writer Terry Johnson (Darlinghurst Theatre Company, April 22).

Ensemble ticket prices range from concessions at $25 to a top around $70; Darlinghurst’s ticket prices have had to go up this year – ranging from $44 to $54.

Top class actors appeared in these shows (just as, for example Brooke Satchwell appeared at the Ensemble in David Williamson’s Jack of Hearts. also reviewed here on March 5, 2016). 

But though The Play That Goes Wrong is excellent for its production values, it is no more than slapstick.  It is a clown show – highly entertaining but with no further significance.  There’s value, of course, in a good laugh, but there’s more value in farce designed to reveal something more than that.

Brooke Satchwell in action
in The Play That Goes Wrong

So I wondered what The Play That Goes Wrong could be ‘about’, and the only answer I could see is that it makes fun of amateur drama societies.  I have acted in, directed and chaired  such societies in my time, and it seems to me that at least in Australia the kinds of ‘going wrong’ made so much fun of in this play had a bit of truth maybe into the 1980s, but since then the standards across the board in drama teaching and performance mean that professional quality is common in amateur and pro-am companies nowadays.

So I wonder if it’s just an English thing.  Are there still Cornley Polytechnic Drama Societies for laughing at over tea?  Or, as Peter Sellers said years ago about Balham – Gateway to the South, ‘Honey’s off, dear.’