The Play That Goes Wrong - Seeing the Original Cast Back on Stage
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
Right, let’s start this with everything out in the open. If you were to have a scroll back through this site, you would find that I have seen and reviewed Mischief Theatre’s ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ on a fair few occasions already, and therefore, I have to admit that this stage comedy is a very firm favourite of mine. I have a huge soft spot for it, it is a show that I can just keep going back to again and again, and it will always make me laugh. I love everything that Mischief Theatre does, from the stage to the screen, so when the opportunity to see the original (as seen on TV) cast returning to their Murder at Haversham Manor roots, I simply could not miss it, even if it meant spending around 11 hours all together on a train in a round trip to Manchester.
I wouldn’t call what you are about to read a review as such, at least not of the show as a whole. I’ll be talking about the performances of course but look at this as more of a review of the experience, of the thrill of seeing a group of performers you have loved for years coming back to the show where they really started to hit the big time.
‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ started life in the small Red Lion Pub Theatre and over the years has gone from strength to strength. It’s been performed all over the world, taken to the stage at the Royal Variety Performance and paved the way to ‘The Goes Wrong Show’ television success for the group of performers who created it.
It follows a play within a play format as we are introduced to Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, led by Chris Bean (Henry Shields) in his directorial debut. The drama society have been invited to stage their newest production ‘The Murder at Haversham Manor’ at a large prestigious venue (in this case, the Manchester Opera House), but it is safe to say that they aren’t best prepared. The set has a mind of its own, newest Cornley member Dennis (Jonathan Sayer) keeps forgetting his lines, lead actress Sandra (Charlie Russell/Aisha Numah) can’t stop hogging the limelight and bickering with stage manager Annie (Nancy Zamit/Mary McGurk), Robert (Henry Lewis) is milking his role for all it is worth, Jonathan (Greg Tannahill) can’t wait for his moment to shine, Max (Dave Hearn) just keeps reacting to the audience and light and sound technician Trevor (Rob Falconer/Will Taylor) is really just having a nightmare.
What unfolds is a masterclass in comedy, both in physicality and wordplay as we witness the drama society try to get to the end of their serious murder mystery in one piece.
There was a buzz of excitement in the Manchester Opera House auditorium on both nights we attended the show, especially when the cast started to make their way out for the now much-loved pre-show. Seeing Rob Falconer, Henry Shields and Nancy Zamit moving around the audience (on the first night) with Mary McGurk playing the role of Annie on the second night, alongside Harry Boyd and Clare Foy as Cornley stagehands was brilliantly fun and really got everyone into the spirit, ready for the show to begin.
And now onto the show.
If you’ve seen ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’, or ‘The Goes Wrong Show’ for that matter, you will understand that the show’s opening speech done by director Chris Bean is simply iconic and when the original performer Henry Shields walked onto the stage and said, ‘I’m Chris Bean, the Director’, there was an almighty cheer. As Chris Bean, playing inspector Carter in The Murder at Haversham Manor, Shields is captivating, holding the audience in the palm of his hand and earning many a delighted laugh as the Cornley Director slowly but surely loses his temper with his gang of hapless performers. During a certain scene with a misplaced prop that has quickly became a favourite moment for Mischief fans, Shields’ breaking of the fourth wall and direct addressing of the audience created a beautiful moment of people coming together in laughter and hilarity with brilliantly crafted chaos. Whether shouting at the audience, who were more than happy to shout back, slotting into a teacher like mode and saying that he wouldn’t continue until everyone was quiet, or even jumping off the stage into the front row to rant at a laughing child, he raised the roof with his improvised antics.
Much loved for her glances to the camera/audience and love of attention, the Cornley character of Sandra is brilliantly funny and sassy and seeing Charlie Russell in the role was a delight. Sandra is larger than life, and the audience were loving every moment of Russell’s performance. Her interactions with Dave Hearn as Max/Cecil Haversham, Greg Tannahill as Jonathan/Charles Haversham and Mary McGurk as Annie were hilarious and there was just a wonderful sense of fun in her performance.
When it comes to certain shows, it’s a given that people are going to have their favourite characters, and for me, when it comes to ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’, my favourite character is definitely Max, who just loves to get a reaction from the audience and make people smile. With him being my favourite, I was definitely excited to see Dave Hearn returning to Max in the role of Cecil Haversham/Arthur the Gardener and Hearn’s performance has only made me love the character even more. From the littlest of details in his portrayal, the hand movements, the facial expressions, the smiles here and there as the character buzzes with his own excitement at being on stage, it was just wonderful. And with Max being a character who loves to get a reaction from the audience, Hearn was able to play on this even more with the auditorium full of the rafters with mischief fans giving his huge cheers and applause throughout, egging on more bows and more beaming smiles.
As Robert playing the role of Thomas Colleymoore, Henry Lewis gives a commanding performance. A favourite with the audience, there was a cheer as soon as he came on stage. In this very physical role, Lewis had the audience in stitches as he wrestled with props and set pieces, argued with stage manager Trevor, caused havoc for his fellow actors, and lost his temper in true Robert Grove’s ‘Anything You Can Act I Can Act Louder’ style at Jonathan Sayer’s forgetful Dennis in that iconic scene at the end of act one.
The character of Jonathan, playing the role of Charles Haversham is a perfect example of how small moments can make big memories and Greg Tannahill in the role shines, creating moments of hilarity throughout. From trying to escape the stage without being seen, with little success, to desperately trying to get his cue right, Tannahill is able to earn big laughs without saying a word. A simple glance to the audience, a gesture, a worried stare to his co-stars, and the audience were in fits of giggles.
Fans of Mischief’s TV shows, even those who haven’t seen ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ will know of the antics of Dennis Tyde, brilliantly played by Jonathan Sayer. He’s forgetful, accident prone and scatter brained, all ingredients that make up for a hilarious performance as Dennis tries his best to get through the show without too much error and without angering Robert and Chris too much. Sayer makes the character all the more lovable, trying to cover up errors with over-the-top gestures and interactions with the audience, which everyone loved.
Nancy Zamit’s Annie is sassy and full of attitude, whilst also bringing a wonderful sense of fun to the character with lots of laughter, particularly in the closing moments of act 1. Annie, as a character, goes through a lot, from shy stage manager to having to play a character in The Murder at Haversham Manor herself, and you can’t help but love her for it and the audience were in absolute fits of laughter watching her and Sandra argue it out.
As light and sound technician Trevor, Rob Falconer got plenty of laughs, directly interacting with the audience throughout and handling heckles from the excited crowd with ease. You feel for the character as he tries his best to hold it all together and laugh along with him when he decides if you can’t beat them join them and winds up the actors. Falconer is able to make the grumpy character of Trevor all the more lovable with his antics, with just a simple gesture enough to earn a laugh.
Having visited the show twice during our trip to Manchester, we were lucky enough to see a couple of understudies (or as Mischief called them Thunderstudies) on covering roles with Aisha Numah, who plays the role of Sandra in the UK Tour, playing the role of the leading lady on the Thursday night. Numah’s Sandra is full of attitude and sass, bouncing off of Zamit’s Annie brilliantly with hilarious results. Mary McGurk took on the role of Annie for the Friday night show, and her performance was brilliantly endearing. There was an air of innocence to her Annie, a wide-eyed look of panic as things go wrong around her and a wonderful glee in laughing along with the audience. Another thunderstudy, Will Taylor, stepped up and saved the day at the Thursday night performance, going from watching the show to playing the role of Trevor with a switch around happening with very short notice during the interval. Taylor’s take on the role adds a level of lovable cheekiness to Trevor, with his bright smile and laughter earning more laughs and response from the audience.
For someone who has seen the show as many as I have, you do start to notice more and more little details each time, including noticing when things might not go exactly according to plan for real. On the Friday night performance there was a slight slip up meaning that one of the pyros wasn't fired off, leading to a small moment having to suddenly be cut, but for a newbie to the show you wouldn't have noticed and they covered it all brilliantly.
The show itself is so brilliantly put together, the art of making sure that everything ‘goes wrong’ in exactly the right way and the play on many classic slapstick moments that are brought bang up to date. Written by original cast members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, it is intricately crafted chaos, planned and executed with split second precision and jokes that just land perfectly every single time. The physical elements harking back to the golden age of slapstick along with the clever wordplay of line slip ups and dialogue delivered with spot on comedic timing mean that this show has something for everyone.
‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ launched its original cast to comedy superstardom, and with them returning to their Murder at Haversham Manor roots to celebrate the ten years since the show first premiered in the tiny Red Lion Pub Theatre, their stars continue to shine as brightly as ever. With the show having been running in the West End for over seven years now, it truly is a sign of their legacy and the role they have played in bringing good old fashioned family friendly slapstick comedy back into the mainstream. In the ten years since the show first premiered, the company have gone from strength to strength and now have countless hits under their belts, but from this run of the original cast back in the show where they really hit the big time, you can see just how important and special ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ is to them.
I’ve spoken about the buzz of excitement that could be felt in the auditorium from all of the mischief fans gathered to see the original cast back in action together for the first time since their Broadway run in 2017, but sitting there in the audience, you could also feel the excitement and sheer happiness from the cast being back on that stage, playing these now iconic characters once more and could feel just how much it meant to them all. It felt like a shared thank you, a shared moment in which the audience thanked the original cast for creating such a laugh out loud show and the cast, in turn, thanked the audience for not only coming to the show in that moment but for supporting them throughout their multiple Mischief projects over the years. It was a beautiful moment to be a part of and something that I will never forget. (And getting to meet everyone at stage door after the show was the icing on the cake)
There may be some naysayers out there, those who state that comedy isn’t what it used to be, fans of those older styles of comedy where slapstick ruled the day and laughter wasn’t dependent of innuendo, who may say that ‘they don’t make them like they used do’, but let me just say, slapstick fans rejoice! Ten years on from when it all started in that tiny pub theatre, Mischief Comedy remain at the top of the comedy game, ensuring that slapstick, silliness, fun, laughter and chaos remains in the top tier of the modern theatre age.
Photos - Robert Day