Exhausting, but sure to be a hit

A standout moment from The Play That Goes Wrong, in Durban until April 29. Pictured are Bryan Hiles and Iain ‘Ewok’  Robinson – with James Cuningham, Liesl Coppin and Michael Gritten in the background. All pictures by Val Adamson.

Stage: The Play That Goes Wrong – Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre

I AM very pleased to note that Durban’s KickstArt theatre company has, without doubt, secured another surefire hit with The Play That Goes Wrong.

Imaginatively directed by Steven Stead, and well performed by a talented cast that bravely takes physical comedy to a new level, it sparked such loud and lavish hilarity on opening night in Durban that it spurred a quick and hearty standing ovation.

I, however, have to be frank and say I was not nearly as highly amused as most. I am not a fan of the play, having already recorded – in my wrap of my 2017 theatre-going experiences – that one of my biggest disappointments in a theatre last year was Pieter Toerien’s touring production.

My problem with the play – which centres on a fictitious, inept amateur dramatics company staging a tacky, country-house whodunnit in which absolutely everything goes wrong – is that it is way too fervent in its zeal, often clever in its execution but, for my liking, relentlessly corny and repetitive, and, ultimately, for me anyway, quite exhausting.

In both productions I have seen I found The Play That Goes Wrong too bombarding in its quest for laughs, too lacking in moments of lulls before lifts, and milking too many ideas too often. It also, for me, overstays its welcome and, for me, would greatly benefit from being severely pruned and presented as one act.

As I said at the start, I am in the vast minority on this – and I am happy for KickstArt for that, and wish the team well with the season which continues until April 29.

Mthokozisi Zulu and James Cuningham in The Play That Goes Wrong.

Presented on the ingenious set from the South African touring production, hired from Toerien and slightly refurbished by KickstArt’s Greg King, KickstArt’s production has a fine ensemble cast of eight.

The premise of the play, which won London’s Olivier Award for best new comedy in 2015 and has subsequently also won awards on Broadway, is that the Berea Amateur Dramatics Society is staging a production of a whodunnit called Murder at Haversham Manor.

The director and a star of the am-dram play, one Chris, who portrays murder investigator Inspector Carter (played with a nod to John Cleese by an on-form Iain ‘Ewok’ Robinson), steps forward, into a misplaced spotlight, to point out that the new play follows the am-dram company’s previous, low-budget shows, including Cat (yes, singular) and The Lion and the Wardrobe (yes, no witch, due to budget constraints).

Before that, however, a member of the audience is pulled on stage by Murder at Haversham Manor stage manager, Annie (a fun Daisy Spencer), to assist with some broken scenery, while stage technician Trevor (Adam Dore), leaves his sound booth to the audience-right of the stage, to wander through the auditorium seeking his misplaced Duran Duran CD.

The comedy comes into play almost immediately when Charles Haversham (Michael Gritten), who is supposed to be already dead on stage, draped on a chaise longue, has not reached his spot by curtain up. He spends much of the time refusing to stay still.

From then on the am-dram play within the professional play becomes focused less on narrative and characters and more and more on visual gags. Expect an avalanche of trips and falls, hammy excess, breaking scenery, endless falling bits and bobs, fluffed lines, bungled entrances, fake snow, props used for reasons for which they were not intended, malfunctioning elevators…

We also get some of the am-dram play’s performers being knocked unconscious and others being roped in to read their lines at short notice. Heck, there’s even a moment of pyrotechnics!

Contributing to the comedy are Bryan Hiles as Max, playing Cecil Haversham; Liesl Coppin as Sandra, playing the flamboyant Florence Collymoore, Charles’s flapper fiance; a standout James Cuningham as Robert, who plays Thomas Collymoore; and the exuberant Mthokozisi Zulu, also a standout, as Dennis, who portrays greying butler Perkins.

To go into plot details further is a waste of time as the visual gag is all… and some in the cast reportedly have bruises to prove it.

Kudos for a wonderful set, intentionally tawdry, which reveals many surprises and which, in the second half, provides increasing, novel calamity.

Featuring lighting design by Tina le Roux and fun sound effects and recordings by Colin Peddie of Sonic Studios, The Play That Goes Wrong runs in Durban at 7.30pm every Tuesday to Saturday, with matinees at 2.30pm on Saturday and 4pm on Sunday. Tickets range in price from R180 to R230.

Iain ‘Ewok’ Robinson and James Cuningham in The Play That Goes Wrong, directed by Steven Stead.

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