Home > Personal Posts, Theatre > Theatre: The Play That Goes Wrong, an ode to whodunnits and prop masters

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

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?

  1. July 30, 2017 at 10:03 pm

    This sounds like a lot of fun. I think that a tribute to directors and prop masters is this in kind sounds very creative and different. It also sounds amusing.

    Your post has whetted my appetite. It has been too long since I have seen live theatre.


    • July 31, 2017 at 6:33 pm

      It is huge fun. Catastrophes after catastrophes happen while respecting the codes of classic murder mystery. If you ever have the chance to see it, it’s good entertainment, a really good way to unwind.


  2. July 31, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    Sounds like a fun night out – perfect for lovers of vintage mysteries. Like Brian, I wish I could get to the theatre more often, but it’s not always practical with work and other commitments. That said. the NT Live initiative is a real bonus as it means we can see some of the London productions at the local cinema.


    • August 1, 2017 at 2:56 pm

      It is very funny and the perfect night after a long day at work.
      I know what you mean about theatre. I have a subscription to my local theatre, so I’m sure to see some plays every year and I try to go to the theatre in Paris when I have the chance.
      Here cinemas mostly broadcast operas, not theatre.


  3. August 30, 2017 at 4:33 pm

    I saw it twice and I laughed as much the second time around! I took my 9yo and he was so excited, it’s a real treat. I’m glad you loved it.


    • September 2, 2017 at 8:19 am

      It’s so funny, isn’t it? I’m so glad to hear from someone who’s seen it too.
      It really made me think about all the people who gravitate around theatre, are not on stage and yet are necessary for the show to run smoothly. Actors always mention the people who do the lights but rarely the costume, props and décor makers.


  1. February 24, 2019 at 11:21 pm

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