The Play That Goes Wrong does a good job of being terrible
So bad it’s good, so wrong it’s right. That’s the gambit behind this ridiculous and funny English farce, which started its life in 2012 in a North London pub theatre and has since become a multi-award-winning international hit.
It is the first fully scripted play by the improv comedy troupe Mischief Theatre, written by three drama-school friends who wanted to find a way to work together on an ongoing basis. American film and TV director J.J. Abrams loved it so much in the West End that he became a theatre producer to help bring it to Broadway.
The premise is that the Cornley University Drama Society (based somewhere in England) is putting on a 1920s murder mystery, which through some not-entirely-comprehensible circumstances has landed here in Toronto. Pre-show shenanigans establish a company of theatricals having a very bad day: a dog that’s part of the show has gone missing; the mantelpiece keeps falling off the set; the tech guy (Brandon J. Ellis) is more concerned with finding a missing CD than doing his job.
And everything else that can go wrong does go wrong from there. About 10 minutes into the play-within-a-play staging of I was worried that it was all going to get old and repetitive — the dead body can’t play dead; the door is stuck shut for a series of crucial entrances. If you’ve seen a play like this you’ve seen it all before.
But it turns out that there’s intelligence behind this stupidity. The show gets funnier and funnier because it works the farce tropes up to and beyond the point of absurdity. The fact that the material is familiar is the point; it becomes a game of seeing how far things will be pushed, how hazardous the stunts will be, and how earnestly the company-within-a-company will work to keep things on the rails.
Spit-takes, dialogue loops, malfunctioning stage machinery, any number of blunt objects smacking actors unconscious: the show repeats all of these to a relentless extent that not everyone will find humorous, but the night I attended it was hard to spot the naysayers amongst the crowd laughing its head off.
While we don’t get to know the characters’ backstories as in the classic backstage farces and , they are individually drawn. The actor in the role of the butler Perkins can’t remember his lines and mispronounces big words but is sentient enough to be excruciated by his incompetence. Scott Cote plays all of that hilariously. Peyton Crim as Robert Grove as Thomas Colleymoore, friend of the murder victim, has a gorgeous deep voice and commits to holding everything together, quite literally. Evan Alexander Smith works the audience well in several monologues as the Drama Society impresario Chris.
My favourite was Ned Noyes as Max, who mugs to the audience with a bonkers relentlessness that put me in mind of Stephen Stucker’s air-traffic controller in (“I could make a hat, a broach, or a pterodactyl …”).
The show on the one hand plays into the sexist conventions of farce — whoops, there goes her dress! — through the character of the cheating girlfriend Florence (Jamie Ann Romero). But Romero also gets to show off some pretty amazing physical-comedy skills, and we also have high female competence on display through the character of the doughty stage manager Annie (Angela Grovey).
The show’s paradoxical balance of excellent badness is most triumphantly on display in Nigel Hook’s Tony Award-winning set. It looks like crap, is purposely too small for the Ed Mirvish stage, and falls apart with machine-like precision. Kudos to tour director Matt DiCarlo and the real stage-management team Jeff Norman and Sharika Niles for keeping the pace snappy and the cues perfectly timed.
The show started out as a Christmastime one-act, and the material does feel somewhat stretched into a mainstream two-acter, particularly in the overextended final minutes. But it delivers on its promise of laugh-filled entertainment, and communicates a lot of love for this silly business we call show.
Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KarenFricker2
The Play that Goes Wrong
By Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, tour directed by Matt DiCarlo, directed on Broadway by Mark Bell. Until February 10 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. Mirvish.com, 416-872-1212 and 1-800-461-3333.