This is the play that started it all for Mischief Theatre, their original production that first viewed the public and critics alike nearly five years ago now and it remains an essential watch if you’ve not seen it. It is a deceptively straight forward production too, using just one set and I can imagine other people thinking they might have a go at something similar. Yet this is a masterpiece of timing and tone. It takes the elements of live theatre and then has them go wrong enough to amuse us yet not so wrong as to lose the shape of the production, The cast play it absolutely straight- except in moments where their character playing a character wants to acknowledge the audience. Cos that’s the really clever bit- we’re actually watching actors playing poor actors appearing in a play.
The period murder mystery is perhaps an easy target to spoof but the key thing about Mischief Theatre- and what keeps it fresh- is that this is not really a spoof at all. It never pokes fun at the rituals of the genre, in fact the company are supposedly trying their best to be authentic, but things go wrong. Bits of the set stick, fall off the wall, come apart. One cast member is rendered incapable so a stagehand, complete with script in hand has to stand in. Character miss their cues, their lines go out of sync and in one brilliant routine the same scene plays out several times because the actors can’t work out the line to move them on! The physical comedy is delivered with enough accuracy to elicit frequent gasps from the audience as we gradually realise no part of the set is necessarily immune to collapse or malfunction.
That there isn’t a conventional joke in it makes it all the more admirable. The script never escorts to cheap laughs, everything is energetically earned and as matter speed increasingly out of control there is a madcap air of unpredictability even though we should know the form by then. There’s a rigour too about the way some gags come back an hour or more later and somehow the murder mystery aspect is played through with a relatively modest sized cast.
Seeing this production –currently touring the UK- after Mischief Theatre’s two tv specials you realise too how attuned they are to each medium. There were slightly different things they could do with cameras that suggest they could take different formats and work them in subtly different ways. There’s been talk of a tv show- imagine how they could tackle well known tv series with this format.
The original cast have now passed this play on to a different group whose performance on this tour suggests there could be unlimited versions of different shows about in a few years’ time. In the end it is the excellence of the conceit that enable multiple casts to successfully inhabit these roles. Their humour does date back to a simpler time worlds away from the weary sarcasm and one dimensional spoofing that you see elsewhere. It feels like they’ve tapped into the classic silent comedy era albeit with words and there’s nobody out there doing what they do at the moment. This is comedy that can appeal to all ages and different types of people so if you get a chance to see any Mischief Theatre show, take it!
Tour trailer (features the original cast):