The theatre loves nothing more than itself, especially when things aren't going to plan: this kind of self-sustaining narcissism has made hits of everything from The Producers and Spamalot to Michael Frayn's Noises Off. And in The Play That Goes Wrong, we're here to prick the pomposities and artifice of theatre yet again in a bustling portrait of an amateur dramatic company from Cornley Polytechnic, as they attempt to put on a 1920s murder thriller called Murder at Haversham Manor.
The result is far, far funnier than The Mousetrap ever was and that's now in its 62nd year, so I think that its creators Mischief Theatre - a group of graduates from LAMDA who began as an impro comedy troupe - may have a substantial little hit on their hands, built on the shifting sands of its own insubstantiality.
It's a beautiful theatrical paradox, and that it should have now come all the way to the West End from humble beginnings in the upstairs room of the Old Red Lion pub theatre the Christmas before last is also a genuine thrill. The underdog can triumph - even if their dog called Winston has gone missing (and instead has to be represented here only by his lead).
Everything that can go wrong, it seems, does go wrong for this play, its players and particularly its wobbly, fragile set. But the more it does, of course, the funnier it becomes. It's divinely daft, gloriously preposterous and utterly silly. But it's also not for everyone: anyone with slightly more sophisticated comedy palettes may baulk at the relentlessness of it all.
Yet I also think you cannot fail to admire the ceaseless energy of the cast or the wildly caricatured yet minutely detailed comedy performances they deliver. Just to watch co-author Henry Shields's face, crossing from bafflement to wide-eyed pleasure at how he's managed to cover yet another gaffe is priceless.
He's one of a terrific ensemble of young actors who give it impeccable timing and daring physical energy. The stage mechanics are expertly choreographed by director Mark Bell, as is Nigel Hook's design which is unquestionably giving the best performance by a set in the West End at the moment.
"This set is a bloody deathtrap," complains the stage manager at one point, and before the evening is out, it's hardly a spoiler to say that it will have collapsed almost entirely. It starts falling apart before the play even begins, so it's not much of a surprise. But the real surprise is just how well-sustained the joke is. When it first premiered it was seen in a one-act version that ran for not much more than an hour. Now it has been expanded into two acts that runs for double that time, including an interval. The pleasure may not quite have doubled - I was left wanting less, not more - but I was still impressed.
The Play That Goes Wrong Tickets are now on sale.
"All in all, it’s a great-looking, brilliantly performed piece ... My only qualm about The Play That Goes Wrong is that in getting their play so dreadfully wrong night after night, they are also getting it absolutely right."
Tim Walker for The Telegraph
"one of those breakneck exercises in idiocy that make you laugh till you cry, despite yourself."
Ben Brantley, New York Times
"It’s not sophisticated and it’s certainly over-extended; the show’s one-act Fringe origins aren’t hard to spot. Yet, along with the rest of the enthusiastic audience, I laughed continually. Director Mark Bell also offers some ingenious, not to mention precision-drilled, physical comedy."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard