Reign of Error

Review by Sean McQuaid

The Play That Goes Wrong
Review | by Sean McQuaid
Charlottetown Festival, Sobey Family Theatre, June 24, 2023

As Krusty the Clown once said, “I’m a lazy, lazy man.” So, assigned multiple reviews in June, I sought reinforcements. The Play That Goes Wrong being billed as family fun, I cajoled wife Carol and daughter Elsa into helping me critique the show as a family. Three reviews for the price of one, a marvel of critical efficiency diminished only slightly by the spectre of child labour. 

The Play That Goes Wrong (TPTGW) began in the UK as 2012’s The Murder Before Christmas, a one-act indie farce written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer & Henry Shields of Mischief Theatre. Their two-act TPTGW version debuted in 2014 and became an award-winning international smash. 

The premise: an inept community theatre group lucks into some money and mounts an ambitious murder mystery (The Murder at Haversham Manor) which they proceed to botch in every way imaginable. Missed cues, misplaced props, mispronounced words, collapsing sets, physical injuries and more – it’s a spectacular theatrical train wreck, heavy on slapstick and light on plot. It’s not deep intellectual stuff (picture the rambunctious love child of Noises Off and America’s Funniest Home Videos), but when it’s as well-executed as it is here, it is relentlessly funny. 

“It was one of the most perfect displays of organized chaos I’ve ever seen in a live performance,” says Elsa. The show is full of sight gags, special effects and physical stunts, often all at once. The kind of careful planning and precision timing that director Herbie Barnes, stage manager Christine Oakey and company need to make all this kerfuffle happen on cue boggles the mind. 

TPTGW set designer William Layton’s expertly engineered, extensively booby-trapped set simulates the “death trap” conditions of the play-within-a-play’s manor set and enables some oft-daring slapstick comedy routines. It’s a cleverly multi-functional structure, and Layton gives it the right look for hapless amateurs flush with cash – lavish but cheesy, stately yet slipshod, as bright and as fake as a presidential candidate’s smile. 

The play has interactive elements, such as drafting audience members into helping prep the stage. “I enjoyed how the play kinda started before the play actually started,” Elsa says. “It’s like a fun little prologue.” TPTGW also has moments – some explicitly anticipated in the script, others more fluid – where the actors have leeway to improvise or interact with the audience, ideal fodder for one particular cast member. 

Local improv comedy veteran Graham Putnam (full disclosure: a past colleague many moons ago) has been the face of the Festival’s TPTGW promotions, though the uniformly splendid cast also includes fellow Islanders Aaron Ryder & Dawn Ward-Dames, Festival alumni Jay Davis, Jeremy Legat & Sweeney MacArthur and Festival newcomers Jamie McRoberts and Julius Sermonia, all playing assorted murder mystery actors/characters and stage crew members. 

Putnam’s character, drama society head Chris, directs the play-within-a-play and stars in it as Inspector Carter. This dual centrality helps explain Putnam’s publicity prominence, which also feels apt in other ways. With the Festival’s signature Anne musical on a non-pandemic hiatus for the first time in decades, this year’s summer casting has more latitude for non-singing, non-dancing performers like comedy savant Putnam, creating more opportunities for a wider range of local actors, and freeing up a mainstage slot for non-musical shows like TPTGW. The Putnam-centric publicity is the perfect symbol of this shift; his brief Annekenstein stint notwithstanding, no one is ever going to mistake Graham Putnam for Anne of Green Gables. 

TLDR? Carol sums it all up: “The Play that Goes Wrong is hilarious and silly and perfect for summer viewing when your brain needs a rest. It is wonderful to see local folks get their time in the spotlight. Definitely a family-friendly show worth seeing.” More cuttingly, after seeing both of this summer’s mainstage Festival shows, Carol remarked: “Anne who?” Anne Shirley, we hardly knew ye…