Review: Meticulous mayhem aplenty in The Play That Goes Wrong on Coventry stage

Crisply-executed chaos: The Play That Goes Wrong (photo: Robert Day)Crisply-executed chaos: The Play That Goes Wrong (photo: Robert Day)
Crisply-executed chaos: The Play That Goes Wrong (photo: Robert Day)
Nick Le Mesurier reviews The Play That Goes Wrong at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

The Play That Goes Wrong kicked off its latest British tour at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. The phenomenally successful farce, which has been performed many times in the West End and on Broadway and all over the world, began life in a pub, its creators, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields working in minimum wage jobs at the time, while performing nightly.

Where they got the energy from is a question in itself, for this is two hours of non-stop, full-on physical theatre. As the title suggests, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, only of course it does so with slapstick precision and immaculate attention to that key ingredient of all comedy - timing.

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The premise is the stuff of many an am-dram production, the play within a play. The Cornley Drama Society is performing a 1920s style murder mystery. The ‘not very good’ (actually brilliant) actors stumble through their lines, constantly distracted by falling props, sticking doors, dodgy sound effects and so on. It’s a delightful play on the British love of plucky failure.

What makes this show so remarkable, and so enduring as well as endearing, is the consummate skill of the performers and of those often-unsung heroes of the theatre, the stage managers and set builders. For this is a play in which the stars are as much material as human. Walls fall, floors collapse, mantelpieces disappear in such rapid succession that it is a wonder anything survives through to the end.

The performances are astonishing, and if you like your humour of the slapstick kind, very, very funny. The sheer athleticism of the actors, who tumble, trip, swing, leap and swoon across the stage, keeps the audience hooked throughout. The pratfalls come so thick and fast one can hardly keep up. It’s exhausting, but delightful, a refreshing tonic after a time when live theatre has been so badly hit.

The Play That Goes Wrong may have just one joke to tell, but it tells it well. It draws on a long tradition of comedy that goes back to the silent films of Buster Keaton and beyond. This is a play that goes right, every second of the show. One leaves the theatre high on the energy of the performance and invigorated by the laughter.

* The play ran at the Belgrade Theatre from September 13 to 18. Visit for future tour dates.