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Clifton Duncan, Harrison Unger, Mark Evans and Alex Mandell in The Play That Goes Wrong.

Jeremy Daniel/Courtesy of Mirvish

  • Title: The Play That Goes Wrong
  • Written by: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
  • Genre: Play that goes wrong
  • Director: Matthew DiCarlo
  • Actors: Evan Alexander Smith, Jamie Ann Romero, Peyton Crim, Scott Cote
  • Company: Mirvish Productions
  • Venue: Ed Mirvish Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Dates: Continues to Feb. 10

rating

The Play That Goes Wrong has gone very, very right for its creators since it first debuted in a theatre above a pub in London in 2012.

The British comedy has been a hit on the West End since 2014 – and just ended a profitable 745-performance run on Broadway.

Clockwise from top left: Clifton Duncan, Jonathan Fielding, Ashley Bryant, Akron Watson and Amelia McClain in The Play That Goes Wrong.

Jeremy Daniel/Courtesy of Mirvish

So, there must be something wrong with me, then. Because I could not figure out who in their right mind would recommend this silly slapstick show to anyone after being exhausted by the touring production in Toronto on Tuesday night.

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It’s strange: Normally, I’m a fan of plays-within-plays going wrong.

Whether it’s Bottom and the rest of the rude mechanicals messing up Pyramus and Thisbe in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the Canadian actors over-eager for New York success in David French’s Jitters, a play that goes wrong inside of another play usually leaves me in stitches.

But The Play That Goes Wrong is an unusual creation in that it doesn’t seem to have a play going right outside of the one which is going wrong. It’s like a series of punchlines without any set-ups.

There is a loose play-within-a-play premise: We’re ostensibly watching the Cornley University Drama Society putting on a mystery play titled The Murder at Haversham Manor.

That fictional play’s director and star Chris Bean (the wiry Evan Alexander Smith, making a welcome return to Canadian stages) comes on in front of the curtain before the show begins to tells us a little bit about his cash-strapped amateur society’s past productions.

There’s also a phony program inside of your program listing all the fictional “actors” and “crew.”

When The Murder at Haversham Manor is in front of our eyes, however, there’s nothing about the production values that make it really look like a university production. And some of the actors look like they’ve been out of college for decades.

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But everything that can go wrong does, indeed, go wrong.

Alex Mandell and Amelia McClain in The Play That Goes Wrong.

Jeremy Daniel/Courtesy of Mirvish

Actors miss lines, repeat lines, call for lines, read lines off the back of their hands. Props go missing, show up in the wrong place, break in half or break into pieces. Set doors get stuck closed or open suddenly into actors' faces.

The problem with this show created by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, from my point of view, is that nothing goes right. There are more moments of sanity and calm in your average Warner Brothers cartoon. It makes Just for Laughs Gags seems like a prestige drama.

For some reason, finding a bottle of brandy empty onstage, the actor playing a servant (Scott Cote) fills everyone’s glasses from a bottle clearly marked PAINT THINNER over and over. I’m as big a fan of spittakes as anyone, but since everyone can see they’re drinking paint thinner, why do they keep drinking paint thinner? It seemed like a joke that the show’s creators were just too lazy to set up properly or make work.

It’s easy to find fictional actors funny when they take themselves seriously – and so Smith as the constantly flustered Bean (a nod to Mr. Bean, perhaps?), Jamie Ann Romero as the ingenue and Peyton Crim as a deep-voiced Kenneth Branagh look-alike were the funniest.

While I understand why it’s funny when an actor corpses in earnest (breaks character by laughing), I can’t for the life of me see anything funny about an actor constantly pretending to corpse as Ned Noyes (playing an actor called Max Bennett playing the part of Cecil Haversham) does here.

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His whole performance seems like a rejected clown bit from a Cirque du Soleil show.

Like Angela Grovey as the stage manager, Noyes seems to have pitched his performance at preschoolers – but the Mirvish website say this show is recommended for 8 and up, so I can’t quite make heads or tails of it.

To go further with the Cirque comparison, the acrobatics, as it were, in The Play That Goes Wrong are much more entertaining. The set designed by Nigel Hook has certain elements you might well call ingenious – and slowly deconstructs itself into a kind of ridiculous jungle gym for the actors to throw themselves around and pratfall over. (Smith has the long legs to pull off any number of silly walks and I appreciated those.)

If I have a take-away from the success of The Play That Goes Wrong, it’s that theatre audiences are starved for comedies – and want to laugh and this is all they’re getting.

To be sure, the audience at the final preview performance I saw did laugh quite a lot.

I arrived wanting to laugh as well, I swear. So, like I said at the start, it must be me who went wrong. The one-and-a-half stars at the top of this review are for me and my work as a theatre critic. I’ll go see a doctor and get myself checked out. Perhaps there’s some sort of Tommy John surgery for malfunctioning funny bones.

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