Oh my. What a strange but entertaining night.
Fans of the original Play That Goes Wrong will understand what I mean by that first sentence. Frankly, it’s not that hard to grasp. Leave behind any expectation you have for the show to go at all as planned, be willing to initiate the breaking the fourth wall at completely random points, and enjoy some absurdly priced alcohol to have a unique theatrical experience.
Much like its predecessor, we again have the fictitious Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society putting on a hastily-prepared-but-meticulously-funded performance of a literary classic, utilising its ‘student’-led cast and crew to manage (or mismanage) everything and anything. It contains much of the same slapstick humour that made The Play That Goes Wrong so funny and successful – the set gradually falls apart piece-by-piece, actors are hit or injured by the unpredictable movement of others on stage, and an unreliable back-of-house crew make brief cameos with script in hand to stand in for a character they have no understanding of. ‘Not quite my cup of tea’, Matt remarked to me after the show, but if you’re seeking high-brow intellectual humour and only realise this play is the opposite after you’ve paid $69 for the cheapest seats in the Lyric Theatre, the joke is well and truly on you.
As an ensemble performance, I have nothing but good things to say. Each actor demonstrates such control over the chaos of the play that together, they’re just so watchable. The comedic pacing and timing is on point. The chemistry they all share is perfect.
On an individual level, it’s actually a good thing there isn’t a stand-out. Francine Cain as typical musical theatre chick Sandra (as Wendy) plays a smaller role than one would expect, limited to drawing laughs based on her rather out-of-place dance breaks, but otherwise is picture-perfect Wendy, singing voice and all. Darcy Brown as the womanising Jonathan (as Peter) also takes a more physical approach to his comedy but we somewhat lose his character development amidst the chaos of the play’s second half, a shame if we weren’t so busy focusing on other characters. Connor Crawford as the director-trying-to-hold-everything-together Chris (who plays both Captain Hook and George Darling) leads his team with brilliant failure (or failing brilliance), which in this context is a compliment, though as a Captain Hook sympathiser I must concede my biased opinion (I will die on the hill that Hook never did anything wrong). Jordan Prosser as the play’s protagonist and Sandra-lovestruck Max (as Michael Darling and the under-appreciated Crocodile) as well as George Kemp, the constantly line-fed and world’s baldest 8-year-old Dennis (playing John Darling and Smee) are able to involve the audience in the performance both verbally and emotionally better than any other duo, making us laugh constantly at the same repeated joke. However, in a sea of stand-outs, Jay Laga’aia as Francis (as the Narrator and Cecco) is the most warmly received; even managing to squeeze in a rendition of the Play School theme into the show, if you’re going to watch the performance for any reason, please make it Jay. Even if it isn’t, by the end of his performance, it will be when you see it again.
The beauty of the script (from Olivier Award winners Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields) is that it allows for each character’s style of comedy to flourish throughout the performance whilst also allowing for much more substantive character development than what the audience anticipates. Max’s self-doubt, love for Sandra, and belittling by the rest of the cast for his lack of acting skills give his character more complexity than one initially anticipates; allowing Prosser to essentially give two performances rather than one. Jonathan’s womanising of both Sandra and Annie (who plays Tinkerbell and is played by Tammy Weller) does what no play should do and makes us root against the title character, which allows for even more comedy. However, I would advise arriving significantly early to the performance and paying close attention; not only couldn’t I find out the names of the minor cast without the program, but before the allotted start time the cast themselves are on stage, providing key messages to the audience (such as when to boo, how to react when a character enters the stage, and even respond to key lines in the performance with their own retort). It’s a little like how the Pop-Up Globe went about their performances, and not knowing these meant I missed out on getting the full experience.
Since The Play That Goes Wong won a Tony for Best Scenic Design, I both believe (but feel obligated to say) that Simon Scullion’s Set Design should meet any hype it gets; a rotating set (that, spoiler alert, eventually can’t stop rotating) takes us through a Darling bedroom, sparse Neverland, and minimalist Hook’s Ship which are equal parts beautifully constructed, painstakingly put-together, and conducive to the comedy that faulty wiring can produce. While I’m on production, stay back a little after the performance to hear some of Ella Wahlstrom’s Sound Design; audition tapes and other associated materials give an unexpected last laugh to what is already an incredibly funny show.
Ultimately, after the The Book of Mormon graced its stage, Resident Director Luke Joslin’s Peter Pan Goes Wrong seems like just the right show for the Lyric Theatre to put on next. Fans of the original will be pleasantly surprised by the increased sophistication of the script, those yet to see either will love the uncommon dependence the play has on the audience to create humour, and kids will laugh because at one point someone moons the audience (though that is also just funny in general). It’s a win-win-win.