playing at the Duchess Theatre

Review by Clive Burton


The last time The Duchess Theatre hosted a show where audience merriment was quite so unbridled was several years ago when the disastrous musical Behind the Iron Mask made a brief appearance. But the humour in that production was mainly unintentional and caused by inept writing, quirky casting - and the fact that the leading man had to sing with his head encased in a coal scuttle.


With its catalogue of (intentional) disasters Michael Frayn’s side-splitting Noises Off  has pretty much led the field when it comes to stage comedy - until  The Play That Goes Wrong made its current appearance at the diminutive Duchess.


Things begin to go awry before the show even starts as ‘stage hands’ swarm round recalcitrant props, adjust wonky furniture, and try to undertake on-the-run maintenance jobs while Rob Falconer’s Lighting and Sound Operator (Trevor)  generally gets under everyone’s  feet.

The premise of The Play That Goes Wrong is that we are actually witnessing a performance by a local (h)am-dram company - the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society - of the murder mystery, ‘Murder at Haversham Manor’.


The show is introduced by its oleaginous Director, (Henry Shields’ Basil Fawlty-esque Chris Bean, who also plays Inspector Carter in the ensuing melodrama).

Things begin to go wrong right from the inept entry of the dashing corpse (Greg Tannahill’s Charles Haversham, the ‘stiff’ around whose murder this insane spoof is woven) who has to negotiate his way in semi-darkness from the wings to the chaise longue on which his cadaver is discovered.

This sets in motion a plot more preposterous than any imaginable - and, without giving too much away - I can say right now that Butler didn’t do it!


Actor (and co-writer with Messrs Lewis and Shields) Jonathan Sayer’s Butler, Perkins, hams it up as if there were no tomorrow, reading his most difficult lines from prompts for key words on the palms of his hands: a standing joke throughout the show, anticipation the meaning of some of his more obscure pronouncements is a source of continuing merriment (although ‘façade’ beats the lot!).

Under the throw-caution-to-the-winds direction of Mark Bell, the entire cast has mastered the art of outrageous posing, the frantic semaphoring of emotions and the inept portrayal of over-reactions, buoyed up by the audience’s manic hilarity that has one fearing cracked ribs and damp seats as row upon row of the Stalls rock with uncontrollable laughter.

No cliché of the ‘murder mystery’ genre is left unexplored and red herrings run amok as the focus on potential miscreants shifts from Charlie Russell’s unfaithful Fiancée (Florence Colleymoore and her reluctant understudy, Nancy Wallinger’s zany Stage Manager, Annie Twilloil.) Wonderfully shameless muggers, each hogs the limelight at every opportunity as does Henry Lewis’s stentorian scene-stealer, Thomas Colleymoore.

In the hellzapoppin’ second act, other suspects come under the inept examination of Inspector Carter, whose manic manner pushes his Fawlty-like eccentricities off the scale: verbal gags, sight gags, silly walks, ranting or double-taking - he does it all with unbridled vigour against the silent star of the show, Nigel Hook’s  tawdry set.

The wild comings and goings of the remarkably fleet cast appear at times worryingly life-threatening as props disintegrate, floors collapse, foolhardy suspects are thrown in and out of windows, negotiate an ever-more-unsafe collapsing mezzanine or are encased within a grandfather clock whose dial is set permanently at 5 o’clock.

The revelation of the ultimate perpetrator, his motive and modus operandi literally bring the house down on London’s most murderously funny comedy. Pure Marmite!


If purchased online or over the phone (includes booking fee and a £1 Theatre Restoration Levy)
Stalls: £52, £37.50, £22, Premium tickets: £67.50
Dress Circle: £52, £37.50, £22 



Tuesday - Saturday: 7:30pm
Saturday: 2:30pm
Sunday: 3pm & 7pm



by phone: 0330 333 4810

or on line:

Duration 2hrs 5mins incl 20min interval


Catherine Street
London, WC2B 5LA
Box Office: 020 7492 1548