…AND MISCHIEF THEATRE GETS IT TRIUMPHANTLY RIGHT
My latE Dad hated the theatre, for the kindest and most dignified of reasons. He preferred cinema : in live performance he feared that someone would get something wrong and “Show Themselves Up”. But he did like a good joke, and enjoyed silent-movie pratfalls; so I wish I could take him to see Mischief Theatre. Where with masterful precision, cast and crew make everything does go wrong for their fictional avatars; theatrical peril and pomposities alike are pitilessly defined, ambition meets its nemesis, props misbehave and sets collapse, extravagant gestures freeze into helpless stares, and jagged interpersonal relationships poke through the rubble.
I have had a soft spot for this gang ever since the short version of The Play that Goes Wrong, fresh from a drama students’ lark in a pub. It set me raving in the Times,whereon the producer Kenny Wax nipped round to check, and took it on. It lengthened, grew a bigger and even more technically tricksome set, toured, and has now settled up West in the Duchess, filled houses, covered costs, and extended well into 2015.
So last year I hurried to see the same writers and cast do Peter Pan Goes Wrong, with the same idea of an inept am-dram company. I gave it a reckless Christmas five, though it wasn’t perfect yet. Now here’s a return tour, with a new cast (the originals being busy in the Duchess) and a new director, Adam Meggido (of Showstoppers). And it’s better, leaner, more inventive. Authors Jonathan Sayer and Henries Shields and Lewis made a wise decision in sticking close to JM Barrie’s original text with its fey sincerity and faery whimsy, rather than attempting a panto. Indeed a good running joke is that the “Director” – Laurence Pears – who plays Hook becomes glaringly enraged whenever the audience, on nicely subtle prompts, shouts BEHIND YOU or O NO IT ISN’T. “It’s a traditional Christmas vignette! It’s not a panto” – “Oh yes it is!” we cry. The cast utter Barrie’s Wendyish lines under hideous duress as harnesses, props , scenery, and (memorably) costumes let everyone down .
This new cast is very good at doing suppressed panic with edges of miserable resignation; particularly enchanting in deliberate awfulness is Leonie Hill as Wendy, all stage-school overacting and worryingly inappropriate dance moves. Naomi Sheldon plays Mother, the maid and Tinkerbell with a sort of panicky determination, suitable to her fake biography as Annie the promoted ASM; and Cornelius Booth is the heavily bearded co-director and emergency substitute infant Michael.
Sound effects tapes played in error fill the stage with back-bedroom revelations about how much the directors despise the crocodile and only cast him because his uncle is funding it (Matt Cavendish is so nicely woebegone and put-upon that he gets a cheer every time he comes on).
Mischief’s trademark physical courage and skill are deployed in the botched flying scenes (including one unexpected moment of audience participation),in hairsbreadth-timed musichall head-bashes, and in the unfortunate electrocution of Tinkerbell, whose light-up tutu trails a mains lead. Some of the jokes I remembered, but under Meggido many physical ones are brand new and excellent. So is the chorus of genuine children, who relentlessly sing a jolly song during a dangling medical crisis overhead. They too get their comeuppance: Italia Conti mothers, look away…
Joy was pretty much unconfined, in one of the most technically challenging and funniest shows of Christmas. There is certainly a challenge to the touring theatres in the fearful culmination, in which the revolve -with a collapsing seesawing pirate ship – becomes unstoppable and reveals dozens of small vignettes of conflict, repair and dissolution, And am glad to report that they list a lot of understudies. Some of that stuff must really hurt. But down in the stalls, we’re very, very happy.
Guildford till Saturday; then touring!