In The Play That Goes Wrong, currently on stage at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, community theatre troupe Cornley University Drama Society is performing The Murder at Haversham Manor. Or at least trying to, for as the title suggests, very little goes right for this play-within-a-play’s cast (and crew).
All manner of missed lines, countless spit-takes, technical calamities, pratfalls, and a set that won’t cooperate are all part of what awaits the cast of over-the-top amateur actors. Played with gusto by Neptune’s professionals, it takes the meaning of the old show biz saying “the show must go on” to a whole new level.
It also throws out the comedy writing principle of the “rule of three,” as playwrights Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields discarded the idea that less can be more. The mantra here is that if it elicits a laugh once, there is little reason to believe it won’t do the same five, six, seven or more times.
And while exhausting at times to watch, as I am sure it is for the actors given the breakneck speed that they perform under Jeremy Webb’s tight direction, it all comes together in a very satisfying two-hour performance, as evidenced by the laughter from the audience from start to finish.
One of the greatest joys in The Play That Goes Wrong is watching the Neptune ensemble playing two roles, that of the Drama Society actors and the characters in Haversham Manor. The entire cast revels in their duality, providing an often hilarious juxtaposition between the amateur actors and characters they portray.
Film and television actor Jonathan Torrens leads the way as Chris Bean, the director of The Murder at Haversham Manor and Inspector Carter in the play. Finding a perfect balance between the two roles he portrays, Torrens is particularly fun to watch as he occasionally breaks from his Inspector character to that of the show’s director.
Torrens is matched superbly by Jeff Schwager as actor Robert Grove in the role of Thomas Colleymoore. At times, the two seem to feed off each other as the chaos ensues around them while attempting to remain grounded as thespians.
Josh MacDonald, who plays Cecil Haversham and Arthur the Gardener in the murder mystery and actor Max Bennett, relishes his time in the spotlight. With goofy abandon, he often dropped out of his stage character to soak in the applause or to congratulate himself on remembering his lines.
As the actor who plays Jonathan Harris as the (mostly) dead Charles Haversham, Thomas Gordon Smith delights in ancillary roles to help keep the show moving. The running gag of his incorrect entrance remains funny even when done multiple times.
Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks makes the most of her time as Sandra Wilkinson, portraying an exaggerated Florence Colleymoore who must literally fight her way back into the role when Leah Pritchard’s stage manager finds herself thrown into the fray, with hilarious results, after one of several accidents that befall the fictional cast.
As actor Dennis Tyde, who plays Perkins the butler, Isad Etemadi makes his multiple mispronunciations work despite having many of his lines written on his palms. And finally, there is Trevor, the lighting and sound operator, who, played by Riel Reddick-Stevens, appears to want to be anywhere else than dealing with the chaos.
To make all of this work (or not work, as the case may be) is John Dinning’s jaw-dropping set design, which must literally fall apart as the show progresses, complete with his own Phantom of the Opera moment. Come theatre award time, there is little doubt Dinning will be a tough act to beat.
Helena Marriott’s costumes are superbly crafted to fit the 1920s murder mystery, and it is clear that lighting designer Jessica Lewis and sound designer Jordan Palmer are having great fun with some of the show’s other special effects.
Rarely does a show end with those behind the scenes getting their dues at curtain call. But because this play demands a competent backstage crew to make this show run like clockwork, they, along with understudies Jacob Hemphill and Kathleen Dorian, rightfully deserve as much recognition as the actors on stage.
As Neptune’s artistic director, Jeremy Webb, said in our recent interview, one of his goals this season was to “bring the laughs back to Halifax this fall.” He has already started fulfilling that promise with The Play That Goes Wrong, a show featuring moments of true comedic brilliance amongst the relentless mayhem.
The Play That Goes Wrong by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields of Mischief Theatre Company. A Neptune Theatre production. On stage at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall until October 22. Visit neptunetheatre.com for tickets and information.