THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. Directed by Alan Committie with Robert Fridjhon, Theo Landy, Russel Savadier, Craig Jackson, Roberto Pombo, Nicole Franco, Louis Viljoen and Sive Gubangxa.

KAREN RUTTER reviews

This week somebody sent me a clip from Charlie Chaplin’s last silent film, Modern Times, which served as a potent reminder of the power of visual comedy, when done well. Chaplin’s corporeal fluidity, coupled with his dynamic facial expressions and infallible timing, made him truly one of the masters – if not the king – of physical humour.

So it was serendipitous to find myself, a few days later, watching another example of slapstick farce with an emphasis on physical fun. And even better, to be bowled over with surprise and delight at just how well it was carried off.

'The Play That Goes Wrong'

Although I should have suspected, from the start, that this was going to be higher grade.  Pieter Toerien Productions’ staging of The Play That Goes Wrong features a seriously hardcore team headed up by the ever-impressive Alan Committie at the directorial helm. With award-winning actors such as Robert Fridjhon, Russel Savadier and Craig Jackson onside, it was kind of a no-brainer that this would be, at the very least, a good production. But turns out, it’s much, much more than this. Fabulously superb, fiendishly excellent, and ridiculously funny – those were my feelings after leaving the theatre, and I don’t think I was alone. Judging by the grins on everybody’s faces.

The Northriding Polytechnic Drama Society

The basic set-up of the production is that of a play within a play. Specifically, a presentation by the Northriding Polytechnic Drama Society of the murder mystery play Murder at Haversham Manor. So we, the audience, are watching actors playing at being actors in a play.

The murder mystery itself has an Agatha Christie-styled plot with a corpse, a house full of suspects, and hidden motives. Charles Haversham (Theo Landey) has been murdered, and Inspector Carter (Russel Savadier) is brought in to investigate. The suspects include Thomas Colleymore (Robert Fridjhon) and his sister Florence (Nicole Franco), Charles’ own brother Cecil (Craig Jackson) and possibly Perkins (Roberto Pombo). Meanwhile, in real time, Trevor (Louis Viljoen) is causing havoc from his Duran Duran-decorated stage manager’s man cave, while stagehand Annie (Sive Gubangxa) is gamely trying to hold things together.

'The Play That Goes Wrong'

The problem is, the dramatic society has a rep for not entirely successful (or even safe) productions, and Murder at Haversham Manor is no exception. Right from the opening Harry Potter-sounding musical theme and subsequent “dramatic” lighting, there’s evidence of extreme ham-handedness in the script’s execution. And it only gets worse. Deliciously so.

Props appear and disappear, decorations fall off walls, essential accessories go missing and are replaced, while lines are lost and never recovered. The play within a play is a disaster, in other words. But the actors keep on going, even as their production – and indeed their entire set – sinks as inexorably as the Titanic.

Even the corpse had a pretty busy role to play …

Without going into detail and ruining the show for others, suffice it to say that the players from the Northriding Polytechnic Drama Society are just not up to it. But – and here’s the thing – our players are.  What could so dismally have deteriorated into superficial farce is elevated to a level of lofty physical comedy as the entire cast nimbly negotiate clumsy fellow actors and flying set pieces, not to mention dealing with unconscious cast members and an invisible hound. The “duel” between Franco and Gubangxa is hysterical (and very reminiscent of those in-the-background scene stealers of the early Zucker/Abrahams cinematic farces), while Jackson’s body language is a thing of beauty in itself. Viljoen appears to have great fun stomping around as the less-then-competent stage manager, Savadier is fastidiously perfect as the Inspector, Fridjhon brings his A game to the match and Pombo is appealingly sweet. Even Landey as the corpse had a pretty busy role to play …

'The Play That Goes Wrong'

Keeping it all together, and showing much evidence of his own sense of comedic timing and delight in physical shenanigans is Committie. He builds the pace to a screamingly funny climax, and ensures a smooth delivery that makes it look so easy – when you just know that so much work and experience is behind the scenes.

It’s all about good actors acting badly to make a good show. More than good – bloody brilliant. Do yourself a favour and catch this one. Like me, you may be bowled over …

What: The Play That Goes Wrong

Where and when: Theatre on the Bay, 3 May – 17 June

Book: Computicket or 021 438 3100

WS