REVIEW: The Play That Goes Wrong, Theatre Royal, Newcastle

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Not for naught is the acting profession renowned for its superstition.

While thespians buzz about the thrill of live performance, stage productions do, by their very nature, tempt fate. There are no retakes, no edits – and the show, of course, must go on.

And from collapsing balconies to open trapdoors, mishaps do happen. Take my cousin, for example, who managed to break her leg backstage just before the second half opened of an am-dram farce.

The male assistant director was forced to step in to play her part. Thankfully a stocky, stubbly man playing a female police officer merely added to the humour.

Arguably you can get more mirth from a play that goes wrong than one that goes right – which is the premise, indeed, the very title, of the Olivier Award-winning production which hit the Theatre Royal stage this week.

On the surface, The Play That Goes Wrong initially feels like nothing more than a slapstick farce with a twist – but the sophistication of the humour and structure runs much deeper.

It’s presented as an opening night performance of Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s production of The Murder at Haversham Manor – complete with an inept cast and crew, collapsing stage and confounded props.

When it comes to stage comedies, I’m about as stony-faced as an English comedian’s audience at Glasgow Empire Theatre in the 1970s. I do my best laughing on the inside.

But even I let out regular titters and guffaws as the ingenious disaster unfolded.

The secret of comedy is timing, as they say, and in that respect The Play That Goes Wrong runs like comedic clockwork – from a corpse collapsing into a marriage proposal just as the words “he can no longer come between us” are uttered, to a fainting grandfather clock.

Certain disasters are literally accidents waiting to happen, with the anticipation building up to wonderful comedy climax. Others catch you completely by surprise. The mishaps are myriad and I shall refrain from spoilers.

But perhaps what’s most clever is the way the play manages a double suspension of disbelief. You’d expect the constant calamities to detract from the murder mystery tale you are being presented with by the self-confessed am dram company.

But it’s still easy to get engrossed in the story, as it is to believe you’re genuinely watching an embattled and incompetent cast struggling their way through unending adversity.

From the stellar cast, a special mention must go to Jason Callendar who, despite playing a corpse, manages tremendous feats of subtle comedy genius.

Hats must also be tipped to set designer Nigel Hook, who was tasked with creating the worst disaster in theatrical history with an infinite number of collapses and catastrophes – while keeping the cast safe and meeting, we presume, stringent health and safety regulations.

•The Play That Goes Wrong runs until Saturday January 1 at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle