Review: “The Play That Goes Wrong” in San Francisco

It’s been a long time since I’ve sat in a theatre and heard an audience laugh as loud and as long as I did at a recent performance of The Play That Goes Wrong, which has a ridiculously short run at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco through August 18.

The premise is simple. England’s Cornley University Drama Society is touring the United States with their production of The Murder at Haversham Manor, a typical British murder mystery filled with butlers, bullets, and bodies. 

Members of the Cornley University Drama Society

The play begins and then everything goes wrong. Strike that. Everything starts to go wrong before the play begins and it’s all downhill from there. Light cues are missed, entrance doors are locked, props are misplaced, lines are forgotten, sound cues go awry, and much, much more. In essence, every actor’s nightmare becomes real for the cast and the surly stage manager who’s just off-stage.

Tour director Matt DiCarlo has a terrific ensemble at work here (Brandon J. Ellis, Evan Alexander Smith, Yaegel T. Welch, Peyton Crim, Scott Cote, Jamie Ann Romero, Ned Noyes, and Angela Grovey), most of whom meet the double-duty challenge of playing actors who are also playing roles. The key to their success is that the group takes what they’re doing very seriously (with one notable, jaunty exception), making each subsequent stage disaster exponentially funny.

Brandon J. Ellis

The entire show is a comedic ballet of pratfalls and spit takes starting with a dead body that refuses to stay dead.  The physical comedy is superb, but there’s just as much laughter generated by the clever script by Mischief Theatre’s Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields. The mangling of the English language by one actor is just hilarious.

I had my doubts as to whether the show and the cast could maintain the high level of merriment set early on, but they did. Yes, a few bits ran too long and one performance doesn’t really gel with all the others, but the show came in at about two hours and those two hours were filled with the audience’s laughter (and mine.) The usual direction to a cast to wait for the laughter to ebb before continuing simply had to be thrown out the window (along with a few actors.)

The Play That Goes Wrong is a love letter to theatre in a booby-trapped envelope. Lovers of theatre, fans of farce, and everyone who’s ever trod a board will have one helluva good time attending.    

Rating (out of 5): ★★★★½

‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ runs through August 18 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Dates and times vary. $40–$150. 888.746.1799.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel

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