The title says it all. Imagine an inept amateur dramatic society struggling with just about every theatrical disaster known to man as they attempt to stage a murder mystery, and you will have some idea of the comic mayhem that unfolds in The Play That Goes Wrong.

The cast of The Play That Goes Wrong. Photo © Jeff Busby

I found myself laughing out loud a good deal more than I have done for a long time in the theatre – and not because of my little pre-show encounter. Sitting in the stalls, a dapper chap sidled up and asked for “Miss Litson” then slipped me an envelope, explaining ingratiatingly that he thought I had dropped it. Opening it, I found a five dollar note marked “BRIBE”. Hilarious! I gather the same thing happened to New York Times critic Ben Brantley when he reviewed the show in London so I’m in good company.

Checking the programme, I discovered that my visitor was Chris Bean, President of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, and Director of The Murder at Haversham Manor. He is also set and costume designer, prop maker, box office manager, press and publicity manager, dramaturg, voice coach, dialect coach and fight choreographer. Oh, and he plays one of the leading roles. No wonder he’s hoping for a good review.

The Play That Goes Wrong was written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, who met while studying at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) and subsequently formed the Mischief Theatre Company. The production began life as a one-act play at the Old Red Lion pub theatre in London in 2013. Over the next year, it transferred to a bigger studio theatre, went to the Edinburgh Festival, toured the UK and arrived in the West End in 2014 where it won an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and where it is still playing. Along the way, the show was expanded into a two-act comedy. Now a production is opening on Broadway, while this commercial Australian production has just launched its national tour in Melbourne.

James Marlowe, George Kemp and Luke Joslin. Photo © Jeff Busby

A farcical play-within-a-play, The Play That Goes Wrong charts the bungled attempt by the incompetent Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society to stage a 1920s thriller called The Murder at Haversham Manor. The fun and games begin outside the theatre, with a sign announcing that Tom Cruise won’t be appearing at this performance. Once the curtain rises (after various interactions with the audience beforehand), the script is dire, scenery collapses, a door that won’t stay shut suddenly won’t open, lines are muffed, props are lost, entrances are mis-timed, actors are knocked out and corpses corpse.

The Play That Goes Wrong is what it is. It doesn’t have the sophistication of Michael Frayn’s inspired farce Noises Off, in which we are privy to the chaos backstage as well as the disasters on-stage, but it has a winning exuberant silliness and a knowing tongue-in-cheek tone. It takes a bit of time to get going, and some of the comic routines feel a bit over-extended (though there are invariably worthwhile pay-offs). But as the chaos mounts so did the roars of laughter around the theatre on opening night.

Originally directed by Mark Bell, with Sean Turner rehearsing it here, the production features an  Australian cast apart from British actor James Marlowe, who has performed in the West End version. Marlowe is hilarious as amateur actor Max who can’t help posing and grinning at the audience while portraying Cecil, brother of the murdered Charles, and Arthur the Gardener.

The Play That Goes Wrong. Photo © Jeff Busby

Luke Joslin is in commanding form as Robert, one of the better amateur actors but who sticks strictly to the script no matter what’s going on, who plays Thomas Colleymore, close friend of the murder victim. Brooke Satchwell shines as the Cornley glamour puss Sandra whose diva claws come out when an assistant manager (Tammy Weller) steps into her role as Florence Colleymore, fiancée of the murder victim. Nick Simpson-Deeks is terrific as the increasingly desperate Director Chris Bean who plays Inspector Carter, and George Kemp is a comic delight as the inexperienced Dennis, who is frequently defeated by pronunciation while playing the hapless butler Perkins in half-mast trousers and only the front part of his hair powdered grey.

Completing the excellent cast are Darcy Brown as Jonathan who plays the dead Charles and Adam Dunn as Trevor, the Duran Duran-loving sound operator. The production calls for a great deal of slapstick and precisely timed physical comedy from the cast, all of which is pulled off impeccably. Designers Nigel Hook (set) and Roberto Surace (costumes) capture the amateur vibe of a hoary old Mousetrap-style production perfectly, and there are many clever effects as the set gradually falls apart.

The Play That Goes Wrong delivers what it promises, nothing more, nothing less. But if you want a diverting night out and a good laugh you can’t go wrong.

The Play That Goes Wrong staggers though its Melbourne season until March 26 and then tours to Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth until June 11

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