Theatre Review: The Play That Goes Wrong, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

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Image Source: ATG
Image Source: ATG

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Play
Genre: Comedy
Date: July 10 2018
Location: Empire Theatre, Liverpool

This is the show that I was most looking forward to seeing all year. I had seen part of a previous BBC Christmas special, and I found it to be hilarious; the concept was original but, more importantly, the execution was spot-on. I was excited when I heard that The Play That Goes Wrong was heading on its first national tour, and I was hoping that the show would live up to my expectations. Thankfully, it did, and this was an absolute joy to watch.

This is actually a play within a play. The cast are performing their own theatre production entitled The Murder At Haversham Manor. The concept for the storyline production is actually interesting on its own merits: Charles Haversham (Jonathan Harris/Steven Rostance) has been murdered on the night of his engagement party, and it just so happens that both his fiancée Florence Colleymoore (Sandra Wilkinson/Elena Valentine) and his brother Cecil Haversham (Max Bennett/Bobby Hirston) are not only in the same house, but they are having an affair unbeknownst to anyone except Charles, or so it seems.

Inspector Carter (Chris Bean/Jake Curran, who doubles as director of the ‘show’) comes around to solve the mystery, with help from Charles’ butler Perkins (Dennis Tyde/Benjamin McMahon) and his close confidant, and brother to the bride-to-be, Thomas Colleymore (Robert Grove/Kazeem Tosin Amore). We learn more as the story goes on, including an appearance by Charles’ gardener Arthur (also played by Max/Bobby), and the plot has several twists and turns as we learn not only who the culprit really is, but what the surprising consequences of the whole story will be.

This forms the basis for the show that the cast are trying to perform, with trying be the operative word. Of course, things do not run smoothly; the production has a snag. Or two. Or fifty. Or a hundred. Or … quite frankly, virtually everything that could go wrong does go wrong, hence the name The Play That Goes Wrong. But it goes beyond a simple mistake or two; literally every absolutely disastrous event imaginable occurs, many of which the cast could never have prepared for.

Of course, as Chris Bean tells us, there have been some mishaps in the past; for instance, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe ended up just being The Lion and The Wardrobe, and Cats became Cat. Even before the opening act of The Murder Of Haversham Manor, we learn that 376 tickets which were meant to be for The Dreamboys have accidentally been allocated to this show instead, and the crew are desperately looking for a dog named Winston who has gone on the loose (and literally screaming to find him). Chris is even impressed that the audience came back to see the second half! One should pay close attention to the every movement of each cast member, even those who are seemingly just working in the background, because the accidents come thick and fast, often while you’re focusing on someone or something else. And as noted, the show begins earlier than you might think, so be sure to arrive well in advance.

The manor location itself is very well-designed, but of course it ends up looking very different once proceedings draw to a close. It’s hard to describe this show without giving too much away, but I have to mention that the cast are superb: amidst the chaos unfolding around them, everybody reacts differently, from Bobby Hirston deliberately smirking and playing to the crowd (his expressions are priceless, as was his ludicrously high-pitched voice) to Gabriel Paul dancing from the royal box while searching for his missing Duran Duran album to Jake Curran providing loud stage directions to Steven Rostance having his head in his hands without realising that we can see him. But it would be so easy to legitimately crack up due to how ridiculous everything becomes, and given the nature of the show, they’d be forgiven for doing so, so it’s truly a credit to all involved that they play their roles to the absolute maximum.

What I loved about the humour is how natural and unpredictable it all is. There is the occasional lay-up, but for the most part, the funny moments are totally unexpected, or the seeds are planted several minutes in advance so that any and every loose end concerning a prop or a physical action is referred back to. One can have a great laugh when our friends tell us funny jokes, but we really start laughing when they trip or stumble or spill a drink or drop a teapot. Things like that form the body of this show, along with natural parodies of common theatre shows, containing the sort of scenarios which would be a nightmare for any cast, such as forgotten and mispronounced lines, and even the repetition of entire pages of dialogue.

Then, there’s the sudden alteration of props which then results in some fantastic exchanges, one example being a portrait of a dog on the wall, with Inspector Carter saying “I can see a picture of your father right there”, realising his mistake, but still remarking “The likeness is incredible!” The list goes on. Of course, the Liverpool audience has always had a funny bone to boast about, and so it’s no surprise that the audience here at the Empire lapped things up from start to finish.

The show as a whole is a mix between a farce (an old-style production which was basically the precursor to the sitcom), Acorn Antiques (a 1980s TV show which was essentially the television version of this production) and also a little bit of Crossroads (which used to be filmed in one take for real, resulting in unintentionally funny scenes appearing on-screen). It would be very easy for the script to get out of hand or for the joke to become old when it comes to planting mistakes in a show such as this, yet I was gripped throughout the entire production. There wasn’t a single dull moment to be had, which I can’t say for many shows at all.

Summing this up, I thought that The Play That Goes Wrong was sensational, and I couldn’t recommend it enough. You simply have to see this show while it is performing in Liverpool (Rebecca Adlington agreed, as she was amongst the audience this evening), and I guarantee that you’ll have one of the most enjoyable nights of theatre ever while sitting back and watching the calamity unfold before your eyes. Absolutely brilliant.

Overall Rating: 10/10 – Perfect