As the audience walks into the theatre, actors in costume are rushing about looking for a dog that is meant to be in the play, but has run off, a CD of devotional songs has gone missing, and two actors with ‘Crew’ written on their dungarees are making last minute adjustments to the set, as bit and pieces keep falling down. Obviously, everything that has to go wrong will, particularly if the production is called, The Play That Goes Wrong.
Sharman Joshi has brought the award-winning British slapstick farce by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, to India, already staged it in Gujarati, followed by the English version (Hindi and Marathi coming up).
It is a tough play to do because the actors have to be very good at comedy, and the backstage crew has to have split-second timing, as literally everything in the show falls apart.
An amateur theatre group is doing a play called Murder At Haversham Manor, because they finally managed to get a script for just the number of actors (in the past they had to do Snow White And Four Dwarfs and Ugly And The Beast, for lack of adequate actors). The play within the play is set in an English mansion, and starts with the owner Charles Haversham (Nikhil Modak) dead in the parlour, discovered by his friend Thomas Colleymoore (Karan Desai) and the butler Perkins (Sandiip Sikcand). It was the day of Charles’s engagement to Thomas’s sister Florence (Vidhi Chitalia) when he is found murdered.
Inspector Carter (Sharman Joshi) is summoned to investigate in spite of a snowstorm (somebody backstage tosses pieces of paper to simulate snow), and has to question the people in the house that include Charles’s brother Cecil and later, the gardener, Arthur (played by the same actor, Swapnil Ajgaonkar). By the time the play is underway, the wrong props are placed on a table, white spirit is served by the hapless Perkins instead of whiskey, a mantelpiece has fallen down, a stuck door that is opened suddenly knocks Florence, unconscious, so that she has to be replaced mid-show by a crew member (Disha Savla) mixing up lines, but unwilling to get off stage when the right actress reappears. At one point both the women are out of action because the malfunctioning door and a male crew member has to read the lines, and much to his horror, kiss Cecil.
Some scenes take place in a study on a higher level, and that poses another set of problems as the set looks decidedly unsteady. The cues are missed, lines forgotten and the wrong music (that devotional CD) played by the sound operator.
It is hilarious, though not all actors speak clearly or get their comic timing right, Sikcand is excellent as the butler, going through the mayhem looking so serious, that he is funny; Ajgaonkar goes for laughs as the show-offy actor, playing to the gallery. But kudos to the backstage team that sees to it that things topple over at the right time and nobody gets hurt.
For the troupe doing the play it is a nightmare of frenzied cover-ups and ad-libbing (it is reminiscent of Michael Frayn’s comedy Noises Off, also about chaos on and behind the stage), but for the audience, there not a dull moment.