Of all the most cherished exports of British popular culture, none comes with as much well-dressed murder and mayhem as the country house murder mystery.
As customized by such great writers as Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collin, and P.D. James, the genre’s fans know the setup. A group of strangers, usually upper-class and packed with simmering passions and enmities, is gathered in a smart drawing room.
A murder has been committed, so whodunnit? Here comes a doughty detective to bring all the suspects together. The answer includes a host of red herrings, unexpected villains, secret lovers, long-lost relatives, suddenly revealed heirs, and a complex back story which holds the solution.
The form, as the riotous British transplant The Play That Goes Wrong shows, written by cast members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, is ripe for satire. Preceding this delicious slice of farce and satire—a production of the British Mischief Theatre, with J.J. Abrams as a Broadway co-producer—there have been scattered examples like Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, from the pen of Julian Fellowes, a template itself for Downton Abbey. Who can forget the death therein—wrapped up in a rug as he was—of poor Mr. Pamuk?
The Play That Goes Wrong, like Hound, is a play within a play, sending up both the conventions of the genre and the poor-funded, unprofessional execution of The Murder at Haversham Manner, a murder mystery by the fictional and utterly inept and hapless “Cornley University Drama Society,” who have the grandest of ambitions, and the worst of executions—pun intended.
One cast list within the play’s program features all the fictional members of the Drama Society, another the real actors and founders of the Mischief Theatre. The general confusion is deliberate. Give yourself over to it.
You know you’re in for an evening of disaster when members of the cast roam among the audience at the beginning of the show, asking for our help if we see a missing dog. Hapless stage hands—Trevor (Rob Falconer) and Annie (Nancy Zamit) are at loggerheads over scenery that doesn’t work, like a crummy door. A plank is urgently hammered into place.
Then the mustachioed Chris (Henry Shields), the Drama Society chief, appears to talk up what we are about to see: think John Cleese at his most awkward and potentially explosive as Basil Fawlty from classic British comedy Fawlty Towers. He ends up revealing more about the society’s lackluster productions, like a production of James and The Giant Peach that because of budget issues became James and The Peach.
He breaks character at one point, to furiously reprimand us for telling his character where a key clue is, and for laughing at him and the chaos on stage. We are to shut up, he shouts: This is serious drama, and no laughing matter.
The Play That Goes Wrong features an utterly terrible fictional script executed utterly terribly by a terrible group of fictional actors, enveloped in a real-life brilliant script executed brilliantly by a very real and very brilliant group of actors. You only realize you’ve been smiling, gasping, and laughing for nearly two hours when it comes to not smiling upon your return to the regular world.
This is a two-hour explosion of physical comedy, malapropisms, and knockabout satire. Prepare for Trevor’s beloved Duran Duran—he even has posters in his tech eyrie to the top left of the stage—to play at the worst moments.
If the manor’s upper level study looks precarious, that’s because it is, and in one of the play’s most bravura moments the sublimely basso profundo Henry Lewis must prevent it from complete collapse, plant pots and all.
Florence (Charlie Russell), the femme fatale, keeps getting knocked out—and so Annie takes her place, appallingly at first, but slowly she becomes more confident, until both women are playing her on stage at once, trying to murder one another in real life.
The alcohol on stage is actually, mistakenly, paint thinner. Inspector Carter (Shields) haplessly amasses clues. Charles the murder victim (Greg Tannahill) is trampled on, sat on, and eventually falls to the ground after another physical bungle. Each time, his hapless portrayer removes himself from the stage, in as much corpse-like fashion as possible.
Then there is Max Bennett, the actor playing Charles’s brother (in reality, Dave Hearn), who keeps forgetting to stay in character, and instead laps up the audience applause, enjoying that more than the exigencies of performance.
The more he figures out what we like—little jigs, wild gesticulations—the more he does. The actor playing Perkins the butler (Dennis Tyde—really Jonathan Sayer) cannot pronounce the words he writes on his palms, and observes them with a terrified grimace: “cyanide” becomes “kyaneedee.”
The best scene—and this is no idle high bar to set—is when Perkins keeps fluffing his line at a key moment. The actors decide to keep going round in circles with the script until he manages to get the line right, which will allow the drama to move on. This goes on for some minutes, the hysteria increasing excruciatingly, until… well, it would be wrong to reveal too much about The Play That Goes Wrong. And yes, the murderer is revealed at the end—but only after The Murder at Haversham Manor has itself been resoundingly killed and dismembered. That distant cackle you can hear is Agatha Christie’s.
The Play That Goes Wrong is at the Lyceum Theatre. Book tickets here.