JOYFUL DISASTERS FROM COMEDY MASTERS
The director is grandiose as only a student thesp can be; his assistant (“Co-director” he snaps) surly. The actors playing Pan and Wendy are an item, envied by the lovesick crocodile – who only got cast because his uncle’s outboard-motor powers the revolve. Not always at the right moment. The ASM has split 7-up on the sound- board, which keeps interpolating disastrous audition tapes and backstage discussions, and Tinkerbell’s tutu-lights are having to be run off the mains, on a long cable. Ouch.
Welcome back to the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, accident-prone, incompetent and fictional. Mischief Theatre, their creators, are the opposite: precisely disciplined and courageous comedy masters. The only quality they share with their avatars is ambition. I cheered for their last sellout production The Play That Goes Wrong, which showed a spoof murder-mystery dissolving into chaos and recrimination, and ran at a tight 70 minutes. So I wondered anxiously whether they could sustain his two-act, two-hour show with the same central (and elderly) joke about am-dram hitting the rocks. Even with the wily Adam Meggido joining as director.
Shouldn’t have worried. Despite one cancelled preview when a key performer broke her foot (Sophie Whittaker stands in, excellently) they triumph again. Jonathan Sayer and Henries Shields and Lewis are the authors again, but stick close to J.M.Barrie’s feyly magical text, causing an extra layer of incongruity. And it helps that they are all young – a few years out of LAMDA – and playing the part of a student club. So they can’t fall back on the clichés of this genre: fruity old thesps, ageing diva, weary director. The joke is that the Cornley lot are trying really, really hard, without experience: they freeze in horror, repeat lines in vain, panic.
The slapstick is masterly, including tricks performed by the sets (by Martin Thomas), and there’s sharply timed lighting, smoke and sound. The movement is heroic: Nell Mooney is credited as choreographer, and may they forgive her for those terrifying thuds and pratfalls: this must be the physically bravest cast in Britain. The first act in particular is full of shocks – I involuntarily clapped my hand over my mouth more than once – and creates disasters so weepingly funny that people snorted. Critics rarely laugh out loud – what with the notebook – but I heard a mad cackle from myself at the extended joke of Nana The Dog (Lewis) getting jammed in his dog-flap for a whole scene. I cannot reveal the disaster of the children’s bunks, or the scissors gag, or why the Cornleys’ stage manager becomes Peter Pan.
I had assumed they wouldn’t attempt flying: wrong again. I will observe only that there is Olivier-standard skill in placing a hip-harness in such a way that cast members find themselves delivering key lines upside down, and even more skill in the real stage crew – led by Thomas Platt – controlling the wires in such a lethally uncontrolled way. Gorgeous.
box office http://www.pleasance.co.uk 020 7609 1800 to 5 Jan