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Theatre: The Play That Goes Wrong, an ode to whodunnits and prop masters

July 30, 2017 7 comments

I have been to the theatre Saint Georges in Paris and seen The Play That Goes Wrong by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shield. It has been adapted in French by Gwen Aduh and Miren Pradien under the title Les faux British. It’s a farcical murder mystery play that won the Molière Prize in 2016. It is the most prestigious prize for theatre in France.

The Play That Goes Wrong is a catastrophe comedy. The plot is about the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society (in French, L’association des amis du roman noir anglais) who decides to produce a play based on a classic 1920s whodunnit. It’s the parody of a murder à la Agatha Christie investigated by a Sherlock Holmes wannabee. The setting of the play is funny in itself with all the references to classic murder mystery books. It turns out to be a total disaster because this drama society is completely unable to produce a play. The decors fall down, actors have accidents and must be replaced by other amateurs who don’t know the text. Everything turns into a circus show and we laughed so much our jaws hurt.

The props for the fake play were excellent. We even received flyers advertising it when we entered the theatre. The president of the association came on stage and explained their project and how he was acting as the director. He listed the amateur actors and their real-life professions. All along the show, actors played the roles of amateur actors playing in a whodunnit. Quite a performance.

But beyond the farces à la Mr Bean, I saw this play as a tribute to theatre directors and prop masters. Why? During the play, as the English title suggests it, everything goes wrong because this amateur company is ill-prepared regarding accessories and props. For example, there’s a painting on the mantelpiece of the chimney in the living-room. At the beginning of the play, it’s the portrait of a man. As it keeps falling down, the prop woman replaces it by a painting of a dog. This one remains hung but when someone points at the painting to show a picture of their father, they’re pointing at …a dog! Later, accessories are misplaced or missing. A character needs to fetch a key and there’s no key where he’s supposed to find it.

There are a lot of examples like these. It’s really funny for the spectator but it also shows how much fine-tuning theatre requires to run smoothly. It emphasizes on how much the set, the costumes and the various props participate to the show. Contrary to cinema, there is no doing over the scene if something’s missing. The set must stay in place, be solid enough and yet easy to transfer from one theatre to the other. Things must be at the right place at the right time for actors to use them. For me, this is the serious (and maybe involuntary) message of The Play That Goes Wrong. It helps the spectator to realize how much work is done behind the scene and how much practice it requires. And of course, since the string of catastrophes is masterfully orchestrated, it is a praise for this director and crew.

Has anyone seen it too?

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