Mirvish Productions presents A Mischief Theatre Production of
The Play That Goes Wrong
Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Directed by Matt DiCarlo
Featuring: Scott Cote, Peyton Crim, Brandon J. Ellis, Angela Grovey, Ned Noyes, Jamie Ann Romero, Evan Alexander Smith, Yaegel T. Welch, Blair Baker, Jacquelie Jarrold, Sid Solomon, Michael Thatcher
So three guys named Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields walk into a bar and the bartender says, “What’ll you have?” and the guys look at the bartender and say, “What have you got?” and the bartender looks back at them and says, “Well, for one thing I got an upstairs space with a bar and a stage that is kind of empty in between soccer games.” So the guys look at each other and say: “Well we got a play that might go right there.” And the bartender said: “Don’t see anything wrong with that.”
And so it began, the more that went wrong with the play, the more things went right for Lewis, Sayer and Shields (as well as the bartender) at the Old Red Lion Pub and Theatre in north London. In fact, not since a carpenter named Peter Quince got together with Nick Bottom the weaver to produce a play for Theseus and Hippolyta’s “wedding day and night” has so much gone wrong in one single play.
After successful runs in London’s West End and Broadway, The Play That Goes Wrong is now touring North America. Upon seeing it at the Ed Mirvish Theatre recently I was reminded of Christoph Marthaler’s play, Un île flottante which I saw at Montreal’s Festival de Théâtre des Amériques a few years ago. The production’s style owed much to the physical humor studied so artfully at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris where Marthaler studied in his early years. It was no surprise to read in the program notes for The Play That Goes Wrong that the director of the Broadway production, Mark Bell, is also a graduate of the school.
Plays-within-a-play are a genre all onto the themselves. The Duke of Buckingham had a great success with his comedy, The Rehearsal, which premiered at the Theatre Royal in 1671. It was a satirical attack on John Dryden’s “heroic dramas” of the Restoration period. In it, Buckingham cuts and pastes Dryden’s prose so that it is reduced to such an absurdity that the actors have no idea what the play is about. The Rehearsal calls for a huge cast and spectacle sized debacles staged on battle fields that would be a challenge to most of today’s theatre companies. In the same vein, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play, The Critic (1779), picks up where The Rehearsal leaves off and goes further by including theatre critics as targets of satire and ridicule. The cast includes 10 principal roles with an additional 17 actors needed for the play-within-a-play sequence that ends with a “rehearsal” of the English fleet defeating the Spanish Armada at sea!
More contemporary examples of the play-within-a-play genre include shows like Noises Off by Michael Frayn. Playwright Ken Ludwig employed the framework three times in Lend Me a Tenor, Crazy for You and Moon Over Buffalo. David French’s superb contribution, Jitters (1979), gives all the backstage stress and turbulence a uniquely Canadian lens. The novelist Robertson Davies (who was a playwright before he started writing novels) also gets into the act with Tempest-Tost, the first novel of his Salterton Trilogy.
Always the premise is the same, a group of serious minded thespians – sometimes, though not always, amateurs – are committed to producing a play come hell or high water.
Shakespeare enjoyed the conceit so much that he used it several times. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the wedding party chooses to hear the Athenian workers’ (re)arrangement of Pyramus and Thisbe. In Love’s Labour’s Lost the lords and ladies settle on the Nine Worthies presented by the local townsfolk. If you pay attention, you can hear Shakespeare recycling jokes from one script to the other! And on a more serious note, in Hamlet, a group of traveling players are prompted by the Prince of Denmark to do a piece in front of the King and Queen entitled The Mousetrap.
What distinguishes The Play That Goes Wrong from other plays that have gone horribly wrong before it, is the level at which catastrophe befalls the members of the fictitious Cornley University Drama Society in their attempts to mount The Murder at Haversham Manor, a fictitious mystery melodrama that touches base with everyone from Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie. Although their problems remain the same as their forebears, “you speak all your part at once – cues and all!”; “how can we ever bring in a wall?”; the uber force and speed with which one mishap collides with another in The Play That Goes Wrong is unrelenting until the final curtain falls or fails to fall before the stage scenery cascades into a heaping mess. Oh, dear, I should have said “spoiler alert”. Well the cat’s out of the bag now.
So what is a critic to do, choose words of restraint like “too over the top” or “too much over acting”? Suggest that it has too much slapstick and that the laugh lines are repetitive? Cleary the play is the product of three guys making it up on the fly every night over pints on the second floor of a London pub. If the line or the bit got a laugh one night, why not crank it up three or four notches the next night? And if it gets a bigger laugh the next night why not crank it up five or ten notches more? You get the idea.
Suffice it to say this production more than lives up to its title so don’t say I didn’t warn you beforehand! Or as Shakespeare put it, “what’s wrong is right”!