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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Duchess


  Ph: Alastair Muir

The subject of amateurs and provincial theatre companies attempting (disastrously) to stage plays in village halls and repertory theatres up and down the country, is hardly new. In Terrence Rattigan’s Harlequinade, a rep. company battles with a production of Romeo and Juliet. Michael Frayn’s Noises Off follows the calamitous tribulations of a regional company’s efforts to stage a farce. Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval uses an amateur production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera as a springboard for its leading man’s several backstage romantic flings.
The latest addition to the genre, if one can call it so, is The Play That Goes Wrong, a farce, written in committee by Henry Shields, Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer, all of whom also appear in the show. The premise, quite simply, is that an enthusiastic bunch of amateur theatricals are presenting their annual outing, an Agatha Christie-type thriller called Murder at Haversham Manor, during which everything that can possibly go wrong, does – and then some!
I must admit that about five minutes into it I was filled with apprehension. As the cast wrestled gamely with recalcitrant props, knocked into the scenery and wildly overacted, I wondered how on earth material as well worn as this could possibly sustain an entire evening. I am delighted to tell you my fears were groundless. No sooner was the first murder committed than this old-fashioned mock thriller spiraled into dizzying flights of invention and hilarity that kept the audience (myself very much included) merrily guffawing for the better part of two hours. And just when you thought the authors had exhausted their supply of amateur ineptitude and there was nothing else that could possibly go wrong, your funny bone was assaulted by yet another set of unforeseen disasters, many involving substantial physical risk. 
The lack of predictability keeps this hilarious entertainment fresh, and the hard-working cast’s commitment and enthusiasm to the demanding material sustains interest in what is basically a one-joke premise.
In all the chaos and mayhem, it would be easy to under-estimate the mighty contribution made by director Mark Bell. What appears, throughout, so deliberately slapdash and amateurish, has been choreographed to within an inch of its proverbial life. Nor should you overlook the importance of Nigel Hook’s set, an awesome amalgam of village-hall mediocrity and – given what it is made to endure – state-of-the-art sophistication.
Simply put, there is no funnier play in the West End – and hasn’t been for quite a while. And the glowing irony is that it could never be performed by amateurs.


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