By BRUCE DENNILL
The Play That Goes Wrong / Directed by Alan Committie / Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
Created by a couple of then low-key thespians only too familiar with how much could go pear-shaped during a production (and how often) The Play That Goes Wrong plays all the usual physical comedy and farce cards – actors bumping into each other and the props, doors opening and closing at inopportune times, quick-fire verbal and physical interactions in close quarters and heavily laid-on slapstick. On that level alone, it’s a great piece, superficially funny and sharp, and capable of giving its audience a generally warm and fuzzy feeling.
But it moves beyond the generic appeal of its genre thanks to the outrageous attention to detail of its writers and set designers, which requires of the play’s cast a strict discipline and an enormously high collective energy level.
The action begins before curtain up, when a couple of cast members mingle with the incoming cast, blurring the line between script and reality and creating the milieu necessary for the premise of the story – the staging of an Agatha Christie-lite murder mystery titled Murder At Haversham Manor by an amateur production company called the Northriding Polytechnic Drama Society. It begins with the discovery of a murder (officially part of the script) and ends with most of the cast – and many of the actors – bruised and battered by what Lemony Snicket might call “a series of unfortunate events”.
The set is incredible. It’s ostensibly a two-dimensional façade of the lounge and upstairs study in an English manor house, but as the action unfolds, it reveals a thousand hidden details calculated to make the audience giggle, marvel and, in one instance, gasp in horror. Audience members with any sense of the complexity of the choreography involved will wonder that the cast are not regularly injured by their antics (their concerns upheld by the staples in Robert Fridjhon’s bald pate, the consequence of an unplanned connection with a sharp corner in the middle of a performance).
The acting talents of the characters (that is, the amateurs putting on the play within a play) vary wildly, giving the actors (that is, the South African cast) an extra layer to play with as they allow for the cluelessness or eccentricities of those they’re depicting, who have to improvise wildly as the wheels – and the doors, and the wing mirrors, and the headlights, and the fenders – fall off.
Everyone has plenty to do, even the dead guy, Charles Haversham (Theo Landy). The hapless Northriding Polytechnic Drama Society stage crew, Annie (Sive Gubangxa) and Trevor (Louis Viljoen) are forced into a number of unexpected roles, and take the opportunities with unexpected commitment and huffy resignation, respectively. Russel Savadier give his Inspector Carter a superior air, not necessarily surprising as he is also the Society’s resident director. Brother and sister Thomas (Robert Fridjhon) and Florence (Nicole Franco) Colleymoore are both entitled sorts, believably having suspect agendas, and Roberto Pombo gives the aged butler, Dennis, a wonderfully entertaining set of mannerisms beneath an enormous moustache. Most of the scene-stealing moments belong to Craig Jackson as Max (the Drama Society’s resident fourth wall-annhilating buffoon); Cecil Haversham, brother of the murdered man; and Arthur, the estate gardener. He has a line in loose-limbed, foot-shuffling, shape-throwing Vaudeville dialogue delivery that repeatedly had every soul in a full house belly-laughing and momentarily unable to breathe.
Add to this some Monty Python-esque skits that fit snugly into the narrative and the clever, consistent building of the absurdity to the very summit of silliness at the end, and the actors get full reward for their commitment to their bruising work, with the audience the smiling beneficiaries as they head out of the theatre.
This story may not be innovative in terms of its themes, but the traditions it leans on are hugely effective and this production is just about flawlessly executed.