‘Please make this stop’: The terrible play you won’t want to miss

The actors occasionally get into physical fights with one another or get knocked unconscious by malfunctioning props

The cast of ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’: ‘The actors can’t act. They keep accidentally breaking the fourth wall or blanking their lines or forgetting that their characters are meant to be dead’

The cast of ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’: ‘The actors can’t act. They keep accidentally breaking the fourth wall or blanking their lines or forgetting that their characters are meant to be dead’

 

This week sees the Irish debut of a new play at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. It’s called The Murder at Haversham Manor and it is terrible. I saw it a few weeks ago in Manchester and was expecting a gripping thriller (like Brexit as seen by a Daily Express reader) but instead I found myself confronted with an absolutely inept farce (like Brexit as seen by a Guardian reader).

The actors can’t act. They keep accidentally breaking the fourth wall or blanking their lines or forgetting that their characters are meant to be dead. They occasionally get into physical fights with one another or get knocked unconscious by malfunctioning props because, well, the set is falling apart. Furthermore, a surly Scottish stage-hand keeps getting involved; the music of Duran Duran features at incongruous moments; there may or may not be a dog; and sometimes the overwrought lead actor/director loses his temper and harangues the crowd. “Why are you laughing!?” he cries.

Afterwards, I attempt to confront two of the actors, Sandra Wilkinson and Max Bennett, only to find they are actually named Meg Mortell and Alastair Kirton. Yes, the whole play is a lie. It’s actually named The Play That Goes Wrong and it has its origins, Mortell tells me, in an independent production staged above the Old Red Lion pub in Islington seven years ago. There are now four different productions happening simultaneously including ones in the West End and Broadway.

I call up one of the trio of co-creators, Henry Lewis, who features in the Broadway version, which is co-produced by JJ Abrams (“He saw us in London when taking a break from shooting Star Wars”). Lewis was, in the early days, a newly-graduated actor from Lamda (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts) hoping “to prove we could put on a show and have it work”. The first one-act version of the play was performed, Lewis tells me, on front of 12 people.

Green describes the ideal “coarse actor” as “one who can remember his lines, but not the order in which they come. An amateur.

Self-production isn’t, he admits, the usual course for newbie actors, but he and co-writers Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields were members of a sketch troupe called Mischief Theatre, and Lewis had worked, as a teenager, with Michael Green, the author of the hilarious Art of Coarse Acting. That was where they got the original germ of inspiration.

Green describes the ideal “coarse actor” as “one who can remember his lines, but not the order in which they come. An amateur. One who performs in church halls. Often the scenery will fall down. Sometimes the church hall may fall down. Invariably, his tights will fall down. He will usually be playing three parts – Messenger, 2nd Clown, and Attendant Lord. His aim is to upstage the rest of the cast. His hope is to be dead by Act II so that he can spend the rest of his time in the bar. His problems? Everyone else connected with the production.”

Consequently, The Play That Goes Wrong isn’t new ground for theatre – Green wrote Four Plays for Coarse Actors and Michael Frayn also mined the territory with the classic, recently revived, Noises Off – but it is very funny, a triumph of slapstick timing.

For actors, being in a play that’s deliberately failing is existentially interesting, says Mortell. “You’ve felt the fear of things going wrong on stage and thinking ‘Please make this stop.’”

The touring version, featuring the aforementioned Mortell and Kirton, is coming to Ireland this week and the actors have now performed it nearly 200 times. Mortell trained in musical theatre. Kirton has a degree in biology. Is biological knowledge useful for acting? “Not really,” he says and laughs. Luckily he subsequently went to Lamda where he studied clowning and met the director of The Play That Goes Wrong, Mark Bell. This was a bit more relevant to his dramatic career advancement, he says.

For actors, being in a play that’s deliberately failing is existentially interesting, says Mortell. “You’ve felt the fear of things going wrong on stage and thinking ‘Please make this stop.’”

What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to them on stage? “I was doing a tour of Frankenstein and a girl dried up on her lines,” says Kirton. “I was playing a dead body on a trolley behind some doors and there was silence on stage and I did the natural thing – I sat up and looked around.”

“I was also doing a production of Frankenstein,” says Mortell. “We were touring different venues and this one venue was very small and there was a big dramatic bit with an axe and the other actor smashed me in the face with it. The audience thought it was hilarious but I was like ‘Noooo!’ He’s now my husband,” she adds.

She has not been hit in the face in this play, though there is one segment in which her character has been knocked unconscious and several of her cast-mates must manoeuvre her out a window. “I watched the other production and just didn’t know how they did that without hurting her,” she says. “And when it came to that day in rehearsal I was going ‘Right, I’m going to get really hurt.’” She laughs. “But it was fine.”

The whole play is all about timing, says Kirton. “It’s like learning a dance routine. It looks like violence and destruction but it’s just the illusion of violence and destruction. We build it up really slowly and the safety routines are really, really precise.”

Preparing for their roles also involved being inoculated against embarrassment. “We had to audition for the cast of the Murder at Haversham Manor as our characters and we had to say ‘yes’ to whatever we were asked,” says Kirton. “So they’d say ‘I hear you’re a very good poet!’ and I’d say ‘Yes I am!’ and then you’d have to make up a poem.”

There have been few people who have walked out saying, ‘This is just atrocious, I can’t stay and watch this car crash!’” says Mortell

“They asked me would I do a dance without music,” says Mortell.

“You did a sort of dog routine,” recalls Kirton. He laughs. “You have to say, ‘yes’. You have to go through the embarrassment and the pain.”

Do people ever miss the point and think this is actually an amateur production? “There have been few people who have walked out saying, ‘This is just atrocious, I can’t stay and watch this car crash!’” says Mortell.

More commonly they get audience members who treat it all a bit like panto. “They shout things out,” says Kirton. “Today someone threw a hammer up on stage. They’d clearly been to see the play before. . . We quite like a boisterous crowd now.”

Amid all the fake mishaps have there been any real mistakes? “I’m not sure I should say in case anything goes wrong in Ireland.” She pauses. “One of the flats fell in Act One once.”

“We just pushed it back up,” says Kirton.

“The clock fell over,” says Mortell. There’s a big grandfather clock on stage.

“Oh God,” says Kirton. “I was on the other side of the stage. She was lying on the floor and I thought it had fallen on top of her.”

“I survived,” says Mortell, lest I’m in doubt.

They’re looking forward to the Irish shows, they say. “Every audience is different,” says Kirton. “Everyone laughs at slightly different things.”

“We’re very lucky we all get on so well,” says Mortell. “Before this I was doing a one-woman show . It was a comedy but it’s not as much fun. You can’t come off stage and high-five yourself.”

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