Theatre Review: The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre

The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre

The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre

Farce and slapstick are divisive types of comedy; they will either leave you crying with laughter or cringing with shame. The line between appalling and appealing is small with this kind of comedy and it takes an excellent script, dynamic acting and tight direction to make all elements fall (often literally) into place and pull off this deceptively difficult genre.

The aptly named Mischief Theatre Company’s The Play That Goes Wrong has largely succeeded in bringing all those elements together to create an evening that has had audiences metaphorically rolling in the aisles since it debuted at the Old Red Lion in Islington before making its first  West End appearance in 2013. After travelling to Edinburgh, it’s back at London’s Duchess Theatre until early next year.

The play that goes wrong is  am-dram group the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s attempt to put on a 1920s whodunit, The Murder at Haversham Manor. The Play That Goes Wrong wrings out all the elements of hammed-up amateur-dramatic productions, camp period murder mysteries and the archness of the theatre with a great deal of clever silliness.

Despite not being an enormous slapstick fan,  The Play That Goes Wrong still had me chuckling. This is not subtle theatre, it’s frantic to the point of mania at times and you are assaulted with slapstick (much of the humour revolves around the set falling down). Much has been made of its comparison to  Michael Frayn‘s Noises Off, his genius play following the backstage woes of a touring theatre company. The Play That Goes Wrong isn’t as sophisticated as Frayn’s  classic, although it’s not without intelligence and a dollop of farcical meta – my favourite parts were when the actors were acting at not-acting, when you caught a glimpse of the character behind the character.

It’s a well honed piece of theatre made all the more impressive by its backstory. Three of the cast members (Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields) also wrote the script and this a passion project with plenty of heart and humour.

The Play That Goes Wrong is booking until Feb 2015 at the Duchess Theatre. For tickets and more information for The Play That Goes Wrong and other London theatre visit www.officialtheatre.com.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Theatre Review: Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, The Duke of York Theatre

Stephen Mangan as Wooster and Matthew Macfadyen as Jeeves in Perfect Nonsense

Stephen Mangan as Wooster and Matthew Macfadyen as Jeeves in Perfect Nonsense

Wot oh, pip-pip and all that. An evening with Jeeves and Wooster isn’t going to be Ibsen, although the Norwegian playwright does get a name check in Perfect Nonsense, the West End adaptation of P.G Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters. What you do get instead of chin-stroking meaning-of-life musings is an evening of theatrical frivolity with lots of high jinks, jolly japes, some super-charged acting and plenty of hearty chuckles.

Stephen Mangan (Wooster) and Matthew Macfadyen (Jeeves) are nearing the end of their six month (six month!) West End run and only have a few weeks left before they hand the cow-shaped creamer (more on that later) over to Robert Webb and Mark Heap on 7 April.

Their enthusiasm, or at least their enthusiasm for pretending to be enthusiastic, hasn’t dipped which is no mean feat as this is a whirlwind of a production. The Goodale Brother’s script nimbly works in many of Wodehouse’s cunningly complex tongue-twisting dialogue while Sean Foley’s direction sets a relentless pace; the script requires as much verbal gymnastics as the physical demands involve bodily acrobatics.

Like Wodehouse’s novels, all the best farces and blondes (I can say that, I am – *ahem* – one) Perfect Nonsense is far cleverer than its silliness implies with a lot of gentle poking fun at the expense of theatre, exposing the absurdity and artifice of stage. The conceit is that Jeeves is performing a one-man-show dramatising his recent high-jinks with a cow-shaped creamer that takes him from a Chelsea antique’s dealer to Totleigh Towers, the home of the bombastic Sir Watkyn Bassett.

Perfect Nonsense opens on a bare stage where Wooster is enthusiastically breaking down the fourth wall and filling the audience in on the story behind his theatrical debut.  Bertie’s attempt to re-tell his adventures single-handedly soon runs into trouble, but, as ever, Jeeves has solved the problem before Bertie even knows he had one, gamely agreeing to play several of the characters himself and roping in Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia’s butler Seppings (Mark Hatfield) to act the rest, a role that means impersonating everyone from an imposing dictator to Bertie’s even more imposing aunt.

There are plenty of Wodehouse’s fine words in the Goodale Brothers’ adaption to ensure a buoyant script, but the actors are still required to walk a fine line between a play that could be toe-curlingly daft or wonderfully silly. Fortunately, Mangan, Macfadyen and Hadfield all inhabit their many roles on the right side of the farce fence. Matthew Macfadyen, an actor I have previously found as a charming as a wet sock was never going to win me over as that pompous old stick Jeeves. But he revealed the great actor I never realised he was with his fantastic performances as ‘Jeeves’. The part when he’s simultaneously both Sir Watkyn Bassett and his niece Stiffy Byng is as fine a piece of comic acting as I’ve seen this side of the Old Vic’s 2011 Noises Off.

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense is a deftly daft, big brained comedy that will leave you feeling pretty tickety boo, old chap.

For tickets and more information on Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense at the Duke of York visit www.jeevesandwoostertheplay.com

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Skios by Michael Frayn

Skios by Michael Frayn

My first introduction to Michael Frayn was his 2002 novel Spies which I picked up in a book exchange in a guesthouse in Cambodia a few years ago.

This Second World War based drama was one of those mesmerising novels that you long to linger over and savour every word, but whose pull is such that you gallop through it only to be left bereft as you reach the final page all too soon. It’s been years since I read it in the suffocating humidity of a pre-monsoon season Cambodia, but I still think about the book and the feeling of reading it almost as often as my mind drifts to those lazy days in South East Asia.

Naturally I sought out other Frayn works. His Booker Prize shortlisted Headlong was a brilliant, snortingly funny countryside farce-thriller; The Scoop-like Towards The End Of The Morning a comedy set in the smoke-tinged, boozy world of a corner office of a Fleet Street newspaper during it’s dying days. And on stage, the majestic Noises Off (I also saw Democracy last year and, lets just say I’m a political philistine who prefers my Frayn funny or moving).

In his latest novel Skios, Frayn is firmly back in farce territory. In fact, this is farce so farcical it makes Noises Off look like, well, Democracy. Silly yet clever, hugely improbable yet completely believable, Skios follows Oliver Fox, a daft fella who arrives on the Greek island of Skios without the woman he is meant to be sharing a villa with (a villa, incidentally that belongs to his on-off again girlfriend’s friends) who he only met for five minutes in a bar while her boyfriend was out having a fag.

Friendless, address-less and lift-less, Oliver spots a woman at Arrivals holding a sign reading ‘Dr Norman Wildfred’ and decides to give this man’s life a whirl. The woman holding the sign is Nikki, the PA to the director of the Fred Toppler Foundation – essentially an academic holiday camp – who is at the airport to collect the organisation’s guest lecturer. The real Dr Norman Wildfred meanwhile is left to navigate Oliver’s chaotic life, which happily for the balding, overweight academic features lots of attractive young ladies. What follows is a catalogue of perfectly pitched and expertly plotted events that will either have you chuckling like a loon or groaning wearily at the whole silly mess.

Like the two taxi driving brothers who play pivotal roles in this comedy of errors, the pacy plot threatens to overturn on a few particularly sharp turns, but Frayn’s great skill is taking the ridiculous to a precipice only for him to steer this juggernaut of absurdity clear of a plot-cliff. Frayn is very much in charge of this story even if it feels that all these incredulous coincidences, unlikely connections and improbable timings are spinning out of his control.

Your enjoyment of Skios very much hinges on you not taking the characters too seriously. They are almost cartoon-like in their stupidity, vanity, arrogance and willingness to accept everything the way they want to see it. They don’t seem to be possessed of instinct or, for the most part, brains. In fact, they’re lumbered with very few characteristics, they are faint human sketches on which to hang a fun, farcical story on. And they wear it well.

by Suzanne Elliott