Sometimes it pays to be a brave gang of friends, fresh out of LAMDA, putting on your own show rather than waiting for auditions. Early last year I spent 70 happy minutes snorting with laughter at Mischief Theatre’s tightly-worked, physically adept spoof of a student drama group from “Cornley Polytechnic”, ruining a Mousetrappy old whodunnit (original Times review for £paywallers: http://tinyurl.com/nz3p5zg). Also in that cramped little audience was producer Kenny Wax, who waited for them afterwards and offered investment provided they could extend it to two acts and extend their remarkable fall-down scenery fit provincial touring theatres. After a blast through the Edinburgh fringe and a splendid Peter Pan (see this site) they have done so.
So I sneaked in to an early gig at the Oxford Playhouse (not press, own ticket), not least for the pleasure of seeing people pretending to be bad actors on a stage where forty years ago as a student I really was one. The Haversham Manor library set, now by Nigel Hook, has grown to two storeys, enabling even more interesting collapses as the fictional SM (Lotti Maddox) struggles to keep it together, doors jam and actors make desperate exits through grandfather clock . Which, itself, gets its own superb moment in Act 2.
The best of the original jokes are there, including the one about the portrait and the mounting desperation of wrong props. The second storey enables a sequence with Robert Grove which looked so physically risky that people gasped through the giggles, and the high-perched visible prompt and sound box makes the most of Rob Falconer’s role as the surly techie.
And I still enjoy the central metaphor, embedded in the script by Henries Shields and Lewis: the impossibility of getting life right, the terror of embarrassment, the peril of getting stuck on detail at the expense of the bigger picture (the plot) and the rage of those who bite off more than they can chew and won’t admit it. Shields’ nervy, panicking director/Detective is splendid, as is Dave Hearn’s Cecil: his body language alternately plankish and desperately windmilling. The catfight between Sandra Wilkinson’s posing ingenue and Maddox’ frustrated stage manager is even more pleasingly violent than before.
I am glad to have watched it grow. I suspect it will get still sharper on its long tour, and hope the bruised cast find comfortable digs to rest in. To taste reaction: I can confirm that Oxford roared with delight and often clapped the scenery or the running jokes, and that the 19-year-old who came with me was enchanted. I did meet an eminent philosopher in the interval who, rather baffled, didn’t get the point at all. But as the Cornley Players would ruefully confirm from under a heap of collapsed doors and walls, you can’t win them all.
Mischieftheatre.co.uk touring UK to 15 June: schedule : http://tinyurl.com/o8fcpdb