Review – Peter Pan Goes Wrong, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th February 2015

Peter Pan Goes WrongIt was only last year that the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society showed us their Murder at Haversham Manor and what a thrilling night of drama and suspense that was. Their immensely flexible approach to riding the storm when things occasionally went wrong showed them to be troupers beyond compare, and so to endorse their true spirit of The Show Must Go On, we thought we would return for their Christmas play (not a panto) Peter Pan, which due to an administrative oversight, would be staged in February.

DarlingsFifteen minutes before curtain up things were still – shall we say – falling into place. The stage manager and his ASMs were still searching for a hammer, handing our hard hats, and getting the people behind us to tear paper up into really tiny pieces – because without it, the snowflakes would be too large. Nevertheless, there was still a sense of hope and confidence crackling in the air as one of the stars of the play, Francis Beaumont, joined Mrs Chrisparkle and me for a chat in the stalls. Not just us, he walked around welcoming everyone to the play; a very thoughtful and personal touch. He seemed extremely happy when he discovered a celebrity in the front row, Simon, who apparently had appeared in Skyfall, and we all sang him Happy Birthday, before discovering it wasn’t his birthday after all. Chris Bean, the dactor, that’s a director and actor to you and me, was also scurrying around in a very fetching Pringle top (the woollen mill, not the crisps), before officially welcoming us all from the stage together with co-director, I mean Assistant Director, Robert Grove.

Peter PanIf you’ve seen The Play That Goes Wrong – and if you haven’t you really need to get on over to the Duchess Theatre – you might be asking yourself, do I also need to see Peter Pan Goes Wrong, are they basically the same show in a different setting? Well, the answers are yes and yes. Once again the excruciatingly awful actors of the CPDS are to be seen desecrating the beautiful Royal theatre with their ham-fisted performances, overweening self-belief, and a set that has a mind of its own. This kind of humour is not for everyone. It is hugely slapstick, totally lacking in subtlety, and encourages you to laugh at things that in many respects one ought not to find funny – like an out of control wheelchair. It is also immensely likeable, enormously character-driven, and performed with a degree of accuracy, timing and all-round skill of Bolshoi proportions (if they were doing dance). Which they’re not.

Hooky and the BoysIt may be easy to dismiss the play itself as being just a box of tricks, but actually it’s extraordinarily well written and beautifully structured. Something in the text and performance encourages the audience to shout back and participate in the play in a way you wouldn’t dream of in any other comedy; it’s like a mutual confidence between cast and audience grows organically as the show develops. There’s a wonderful scene where Laurence Pears, playing Dactor Chris Bean, playing Captain Hook, is really losing it. So many things have gone wrong and the audience are laughing at him when he’s not meant to be funny. “Stop laughing at me!!!” he bellows, like the spoiltest brat in the school, which only makes us laugh at him more. He starts picking on individual members of the audience who have heckled in previous scenes, but they only heckled because the play welcomed it. “It’s not a panto!” he exclaims. “Oh yes it is” we all reply. And so on. As we learn more about what they all think of actor Max Bennett, our sympathy for him grows so that eventually his every movement is greeted with enthusiastic support and appreciation – note to audience, it isn’t real, it is just a play. They must have a Plan B for a smaller or less enthusiastic audience, but they certainly didn’t need it last night (the Royal was pretty much full, as it is for the rest of the run).

Tight squeezeTechnically it’s a dream of a show, with so much of the humour depending on the unreliability of the set. From falling trees to collapsing bunks, an overly choppy sea to an amazing revolving set that just refuses to stop, no potential technical disaster is overlooked or under-utilised as a comic weapon. And that’s even before we mention anything to do with flying. Quite rightly the three technicians join the cast on stage for the curtain call – the actors would be lost without them. Everyone works together so seamlessly for the show to succeed – mentally they must be all joined at the hip, if that’s not a mixed metaphor.

Wendy and the CrocJust as in Noises Off, actors play characters playing characters, which gives a double level of fun. The pompous Jonathan (Peter Pan) and the dreadfully over-acting Sandra (Wendy) are in a relationship but useless Max (Nana the Dog and the Crocodile) fancies her something rotten. Added to which, Chris (George Darling and Captain Hook)’s mum appears to have taken up with Robert (Starkey, and for this performance, Michael). Meanwhile, Dennis (John and Jukes) still can’t remember his lines without technical backup, Annie, now upgraded from ASM, (Mary Darling, Lisa, Tinkerbell and Cecco) has too many roles to cope with the costume changes, and Lucy (Tootles) is so traumatised by falling set early on so that she can barely speak and is forced to spend the rest of the performance in a wheelchair. And all that’s before you actually dig down to the Peter Pan level.

Choppy seasThe cast are fantastic throughout, and it would be wrong to single out any individual performer, so I’m going to mention them all! Laurence Pears’ Chris is a fantastic study of finite ability stretched too far, patronising both cast and audience with his self-obsessed status. Cornelius Booth makes an ebullient Robert, with a penchant for parking in the ambulance spots, a marvellously whiskery young Michael, enthusiastically encouraging the boys and girls to cheer (which Chris the dactor finds so distasteful) and is comic genius as the unintelligible Starkey, flapping his boat in all angles to knock down anyone in his orbit. He performs some great physical comedy – I particularly loved the scene where he was constantly trying to pick up his hat, his pipe and his paddle. Matt Cavendish’s boisterous Max, too useless an actor to be trusted with speaking roles, loves to come out of character to take additional bows like an old ham, and Leonie Hill’s Sandra was obviously told she was extremely gifted just once too often in her childhood, with her wonderfully over-the-top gestures.

Cap'n HookJames Marlowe plays a continually perplexed looking Dennis, desperately relying on electronic prompts to remember his lines, no matter how obviously irrelevant they are; Harry Kershaw is a splendidly refined Francis, narrating from the book at all angles and playing Smee as the feyest pirate you’ve ever met. Alex Bartram is a clean cut Jonathan, a spirited Peter Pan with no control over his flying, and Rosie Abraham a resilient and positive Lucy, for whom physical trauma and temporary paralysis are no reason not to tread the boards.

TinkBut I think my two favourite performances were from Chris Leask as the tireless Stage Manager Trevor, with a high enough impression of himself to wear a T-shirt that reads “Trevor”, but is hopeless enough to spill beer all over the mixer desk to completely destroy the sound plot. The running gag of his ever-increasing builder’s bum was brilliantly well done. And I really loved Naomi Sheldon as Annie, on a constant quest to change costume, becoming less sweet and more vindictive with every passing disaster.

CasualtyWe both found it hysterically funny, and I am in absolute admiration for the proficiency and accuracy of the physical comedy of all the performers. It’s a wonderful piece of insanely entertaining stupidity; touring till July, but I doubt that will be the last we see of it. Hurrah for Mischief Theatre!

Production photos by Alastair Muir.

Review – The Play That Goes Wrong, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th May 2014

The Play That Goes WrongThe setting is Cornley Polytechnic’s (do they still have those?) staging of the portentous and scary “The Murder at Haversham Manor”, a whodunit by Susie H. K. Brideswell, where Inspector Carter comes to solve the murder of at least one, maybe two, or maybe one again members of the Haversham household. Chris Bean, newly elected head of the Drama Society and all-round smug git, is delighted to welcome us to the show that he has directed, cast, done the costumes for, and choreographed the fight scenes. He has collected together the cream of Cornley’s acting talent for this brave artistic endeavour, which includes the stentorian tones of Robert Grove as Thomas Colleymoore, the hot sex appeal of Sandra Wilkinson as Florence, and the linguistic trickery of Dennis Tyde as Perkins the butler. They’ve even got a real life dog playing the part of Winston, a real life dog. Unfortunately, not everything goes entirely to plan.

Greg TannahillIn fact, nothing does! Take The Mousetrap and mix it with Noises Off, and you’ve pretty much got The Play That Goes Wrong. Before we set off for the theatre, Mrs Chrisparkle asked, “so, what is this then, a comedy?” Not much escapes her. “Something along the lines of Noises Off”, I suggested. That cheered her up, because we both love that play. I think we’ve seen it four or five times now, and every time it comes back as fresh as a daisy and riotously funny. But comparisons are odious, and although I laughed my way through the first act as much as anyone, I did spend the first twenty minutes or so thinking that this is not as good as Noises Off. So I suggest that if you have seen and love Noises Off, and intend to see The Play That Goes Wrong, just forget all about Noises Off and enjoy this play on its own terms. That’s what I decided to do after twenty minutes and the whole show took off for me at that moment.

Charles Haversham murderedI was completely duped by the opening. When we arrived at our seats there was some frantic last minute stage preparations going on by people in black with “Crew” on the back of their shirts. I knew this was the first night of the run here in Northampton and I genuinely thought that they hadn’t got the set entirely ready in time. What a plonker. I realised it was actually the play itself starting, when I turned to Mrs C and said “they’re having problems with the set” and she replied “it’s the play you idiot”. I thought it was going to go down a One Man Two Guvnors line when a member of the public was called upon by the Stage Manager to help repair the mantelpiece. I’ll say no more on that subject, so as not to spoil either play for you.

Inspector Carter goes upstairsEvery conceivable calamity you could think of that could possibly happen on a stage does happen on the stage right in front of you, plus many more that you couldn’t imagine. The resultant laughter from the audience is so loud and so sustained, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience enjoy itself so much in the Royal. The only reason you occasionally stop laughing is through sheer physical exhaustion – there’s only so much jollity one body can take. At the interval we met up with Lady Duncansby, her butler William, the Duchess of Dallington and her Estates Manager ghillie “Mr Brown”, who were all sitting in the cheap seats. They were still rippling with uncontrollable laughter in the bar. There were also some members of the cast carrying on mini playlets of their own around us – never seen that before, an extremely funny distraction from your halftime Merlot.

Perkins tries to remember the lineThe real joy though from this production is watching a fantastic ensemble of eight young actors provide over two hours of gifted physical comedy, with split-second timing, a massive sense of the ridiculous, and a fearlessness to their performance which is quite remarkable. Like Noises Off – I know I said not to compare, but bear with me – each actor plays an actor who is performing in “The Murder at Haversham Manor”. So the programme gives you two lots of biographies and photos. Each member of the Haversham Manor cast is a thoroughly ham performer, speaking either too loud or too soft, with all the emphases in the wrong places, putting on an alluring but inappropriate sex vamp act, or being hideously shy in front of the audience. Disaster also necessitates the star struck Stage Manager and the Neanderthal Lighting/Sound man end up on stage too. However, the real actors – three of whom have actually written the play – are an incredibly talented bunch.

Henry LewisHenry Shields makes a wonderfully pompous Chris the director – soul-baringly truthful about telling us about all the terrible productions the team have put together in the past but clinging on resolutely that this show will be tremendously successful. As the inspector, he tries his best to keep order on the stage but it’s a big ask. Greg Tannahill is a wonderfully woefully inept Jonathan, playing the victim Charles Haversham, surreptitiously trying to move about the place whilst meant to be dead, constantly getting his cues wrong. Henry Lewis as Robert playing the Brian Blessed-like Thomas Colleymoore, is hilarious as the blunderingly unthinking actor who can’t remember his lines and says whatever he hears next. I loved Jonathan Sayer as Dennis, playing Perkins, with his inability to pronounce certain words and his thoroughly maniacal high-pitched exasperations. Charlie Russell’s Sandra, playing Florence, is a fabulously awful actress relying on pouting and sensuality to get through her basic lines; and, maybe, funniest of all, Dave Hearn’s Max playing Cecil, who slowly breaks into confident smiles whenever he feels he’s getting some star applause. His routine with Mr Lewis, taking a telephone call when all their hands are otherwise occupied, is a comedy dream.

Rob FalconerThere’s also a wonderful performance from Nancy Wallinger as Annie the Stage Manager, unwillingly (at first) bundled into the action but then her increasingly violent competitiveness with Miss Russell is completely hilarious. And last but not least Rob Falconer as Trevor the Lighting/Sound man, again trapped in the action, briefly having to play the starlet Florence at the moment Max has to kiss her (him). I woke up this morning laughing at that scene: “Just do it, mate, they’ve paid”. And, really, there’s a ninth member of the cast – Nigel Hook’s extraordinary set, which turns into its own nightmare on countless occasions. It’s very rare that a set alone can make you laugh so much.

The most awkward phone callThere was an instant standing ovation from the audience. Mrs C and I don’t do ovations that often – they really have to be deserved for us to stagger to our feet – but there was no question in my mind that the cast totally merited it. This is a fantastically funny evening at the theatre. It’s on until the end of the week here in Northampton, and then going on to Cambridge, Bath, Darlington, Southend, Eastbourne and Leeds, before taking up residence at the Duchess Theatre in London in September. Genuinely brilliant.