Directed by Alan Committie.
Set co-ordination and scenic painting by Scene Visual productions. Costumes Co-ordinator Malcolm Terrey. Music: Various.
Presented by Pieter Toerien Productions. At Theatre on the Bay until June 17
As the Northriding Polytechnic (Amateur) Drama Society prepare for opening night of their murder mystery Murder at Haversham Manor, the word “amateur” – meaning a hobby people do without payment – took different dimensions. So too “amateurish” – meaning unskilled. No amateur society worthy of that name would engage such unskilled thespians and clueless backstage crew for their play and expect success.
Advertisements advertising Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields’s 1920’s comedy The Play That Goes Wrong, (TPTGW) as a play where “everything that could go wrong goes wrong” is a serious understatement. The play within a play is a theatrical nightmare. Its amateurish in the worst definition of the word. As well as pretty “ham”.
Except that what goes wrong is so brilliantly clever and the acting so superbly tuned, that were the disasters to really happen in a “live” performance, never again would director/stagehands/actors dare show their faces in any theatre.
The setting is a dark, split-level, multi-purpose old English manor. On audience left is Trevor’s (Louis Viljoen) elevated sound/prompt box. On audience right is Charles Haversham’s (Theo Landey) first floor library.
The wallpapered sitting room sports a green chaise longue; a high window draped in red drapes; a rapier rests beside a “roaring” fire above which hangs a King Charles spaniel portrait. A barometer and old-fashioned copper intercom are also wall attachments. Upstage centre stands a handsome Grandfather clock.
TPTGW being a comedy/farce, the prerequisite doors are worked into Scene Visual Productions’ marvellously imaginative set. To music is described by director Alan Committie as “a mix of what the authors specify, and my own choices – sometimes a gag demands a Duran Duran track”, and TPTGW started to a dark, emotive, cinematic type soundtrack.
While patrons took their seats, Viljoen, headphones round his neck, torch in hand, fussed around the set. He peered here, checked there, ensuring everything was in place, ready for curtain up. It was when an obviously very jittery Annie (Sive Gubangxa) joined him, that the audience twigged this duo weren’t Theatre on the Bay backstage crew. They were part of the warming up/warning sign that TPTGW would be riddled with larks.
Gubanga wandered in carrying a broad white board she wanted fitted above the fireplace. Unsuccessful, she bagged an audience member to help. Unfortunately, his help didn’t help. Nevertheless she’s a resourceful lass: dark duct tape sorted her problem just as Chris (Russel Savadier) entered, to stand centre stage – where the spotlight wasn’t.
Chris, Northriding Polytechnic Drama Society’s chairman, then confidently welcomed everyone, announcing “How delighted the society was at last to have sufficient members to fill all the roles the playwright called for”.
He continued: “Previous productions such as The Three Musketeers got on stage as… Two Musketeers. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe didn’t have a Witch, Lloyd Weber’s musical Cats became Cat.” By the time he’d finished, the audience wondered if they had ever laughed so much.
Written by Mischief Theatre’s Lewis, Sayer and Shields, TPTGW, premiered at the Old Red Lion Theatre, London, in 2012, shortly thereafter touring the UK and overseas.
The play started in London’s West End in 2014 where its still showing. Apart from being translated into numerous languages, TPTGW won Best New Comedy at WhatsOnStage.com Awards in 2014 and Best New Comedy at the 2015 Laurence Olivier Awards.
To tell TPTGW’s story is to tie readers in a knot. Suffice it to say all is revealed as one (nonsense) scene follows another.
For Murder at Haversham Manor the cast comprises Landey. He’s a well-bred Hugh Grant look-alike playing murdered Charles Haversham – Haversham Manor’s owner.
His (half)dead body lies on the chaise longue for quite a few moments until he’s forced to shamble off stage.
That’s because the stretcher, best friend Thomas Colleymoore (Robert Fridjhon) and Butler Perkins (Roberto Pombo) intended using falls apart.
Charles’s murder, on the eve of his engagement to gorgeous, bejewelled Florence Colleymoore (Nicole Franco) – sister to Thomas – causes his cricket-playing brother, Cecil Haversham (Craig Jackson) deep sadness. Although not enough to stop his affair with Florence. Jackson doubles as Arthur the Gardener. Savadier becomes Inspector Carter.
Casting for the Northriding Polytechnic Drama Society comprises Landey as Jonathan, Fridjhon as Robert, Pombo as Dennis, Jackson as Max, Franco as Sandra. We have already met Chris.
But it’s the play within a play which concerns us. To successfully bring off mistimed moves, items falling off walls, props breaking, takes expert acting skills, meticulous timing as well as physical fitness and an on-the-ball backstage crew. All of which this company had. As well as costumes to match their parts – Florence’s flame-red gown is haute couture.
Too often comedy fails through actors trying hard to be funny. These actors know exactly how to operate as comedians and succeed superbly. Doubtless helped by director Committie. Anyone who has, down the years, watched Committie, knows he is a master comedian, and its obvious he has brought those talents into his directing. Not a loophole does he leave, guiding each character into performing at top level.
Scenes to look out for are Pombo and Franco hamming Charles’s murder; Pombo, as a Charlie Chaplin look-alike wearing butler’s tail suit, orange-and-black-striped socks peeping out below his too-short trousers (his running walk and eye use alone are comic turns); Franco’s bonelessness being hauled through the window, and later Gubangxa, would tax any acrobat; Fridjhon’s balancing act entangled in table and chairs on a sliding platform deserves an Olympic Gold. So does Jackson’s Harold Lloyd-like dextrous “strobe lighting” actions and rubber-faces, and tousle-haired Gubangxa’s hasty replacement of an “indisposed” Franco.
A stellar cast giving stellar performances.
TPTGW is an excellent example of how top-notch directing, acting, lighting, costuming, music and sets can keep an audience laughing for two hours. However, much credit must go to playwrights Lewis, Sayer and Shields, who although young, have such sound knowledge of the English language, they feel no compulsion to use “f***” or “s***”. That in itself is a joy.
Book at Computicket 061 915 8000 or Theatre on the Bay 021 438 3300.