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Theatre / The Play That Goes Wrong

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"This set is a bloody death trap!"
Trevor, after suffering one too many Amusing Injuries

The Play That Goes Wrong is a play by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields. They are all part of the Mischief Theatre Company.

The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, riding high on their previous successful play performances (including James and the Peach, The Lion and the Wardrobe, and Cat), has been commissioned to perform The Murder at Haversham Manor, a 1920s murder mystery. However, as production starts, just about everything that can go wrong does. The comedy ranges through slapstick, forgotten and mispronounced lines, the set falling apart, and much more.

It was followed by two sequels, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong, along with a BBC series, The Goes Wrong Show.


The Play That Goes Wrong contains examples of:

  • Acting for Two: In-universe example, as Max plays both Cecil and Arthur the gardener. Nonverbally lampshaded when Max grins at the audience the first time he appears as Arthur.
  • Acquired Error at the Printer: The advertising of the production is often badly installed and misspelt. The image on the program is off-centred and cut off by the border. The logo on the cast change notice is upside down. And in the Broadway Production, in the list of shows near the back of the Playbill, the whole advertisement is printed upside down. note 
  • All for Nothing: During the course of the show, various set pieces fall off the walls. They are reinstalled during the intermission only for all of the replaced set pieces to fall down almost as soon as the characters begin to speak.
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  • All There in the Manual / All There in the Script: With the exception of Chris, we never hear the names of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society members on stage, only the names of the murder mystery characters they're playing (aside from occasional ad-libs). However, the show program will more often than not use the society member names to indicate which character is played by which real-life actor and, in some cases, include a fictional in-universe program telling us which society member is playing which murder mystery character.
  • Almost Kiss: Cecil (Max) and Florence (Sandra) get 4 of these in a row, as they want to keep their affair a secret from Thomas (Robert) and Perkins (Dennis) as they alternately barge in. The 4th time, however, Dennis misses his cue, so Max and Sandra have to follow through with kissing each other until he enters, much to Max's dismay.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Max really, really doesn't want to kiss Sandra. When Trevor ends up having to read Florence's lines, though, he's much more enthusiastic. On the other hand, Peter Pan Goes Wrong shows that Max has a crush on Sandra, which pushes him into Ambiguously Bi territory.
  • Amusing Injuries: A lot of the humour revolves around this trope.
  • Audience Participation: Before the play begins and during intermission, Trevor, Annie, and some other actors enter the stalls, looking for a dog that's supposed to accompany Max while he's playing Arthur. They talk with the audience in character while doing this- for example, if an audience member is eating a chocolate bar, they’ll advise them not to drop it in the event they find the dog. There are plenty of other opportunities too, although the director isn't happy about it.
    Chris: This isn't a pantomime!
    Audience: Yes it is!
  • Bad "Bad Acting": The cast of The Murder at Haversham Manor is equally split between Large Ham and this trope.
    • Enforced in Max's case, as when he comes on as Arthur, the script specifically calls for him to give the same performance he gave playing Cecil.
  • Bookcase Passage: Used to shuffle actors around.
  • Bring the Anchor Along: During the climax, Dennis—who is playing Perkins—is handcuffed to the chaise-longue. He is supposed to be released when Perkins' innocence is established, but this being the play that goes wrong, they have lost the handcuff keys. Dennis struggles through the rest of the show carrying the chaise-longue.
  • Broken Record: When Dennis ends up forgetting his next line, the other characters begin to loop their dialogue (Causing Robert to repeatedly drink the White Spirit that he keeps spitting out).
  • Brother–Sister Incest: At one point Annie drops her script and the pages go flying. When she picks them back up, she gets them in the wrong order, which leads to this gem:
    Annie/Florence: Kiss me a thousand times, I'm yours!
    Robert/Thomas: [looking pained] Of course, Florence, that's what brothers are for.
  • Brick Joke: Various actions often have hilarious repercussions later in the production. Example: Max pulls a large book out from behind a pillow on the chaise-longue and shoves it underneath the furniture so that he can sit comfortably; half an act later, Chris panics when he can't find it, and breaks the fourth wall to scream at the audience members trying to help.
  • The Butler Did It: Inspector Carter (Chris) tries to invoke this trope, pinning Charles' (Jonathan) murder on Perkins (Dennis) when he learns the latter's set to inherit Haversham Manor and all its contents. Pity Jonathan already spoiled The Reveal an act earlier.
  • By Wall That Is Holey: When the entire set collapses in the final act, the back flat falls around Annie, leaving her standing in the gap of the window.
  • Cat Fight: One erupts between Sandra and Annie when Sandra returns midway through Act 2 and attempts to take her part back from Annie.
  • Closet Shuffle: Used with a giant clock used to store actors and crew inside.
  • Colorblind Confusion: This apparently occurred with the drama society's past production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, as they learned too late that their costume designer was colorblind.
  • Copiously Credited Creator: Chris, the star of the show, fills many of the credits of the In-Universe program before the real program begins.
  • Couldn't Find a Lighter: Dennis, as Perkins, accidentally causes a small fire when he throws a lit cigarette into a coal scuttle full of scotch. Shortly after, Robert tries to put it out with a fire extinguisher, but it already went out on its own, so Dennis is sprayed as a result.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: Due to various props being misplaced, Chris (as the Inspector) is unable to find his notebook or pen and is reduced to attempting to take notes on a vase with a key.
  • Cue Card Pause: When Annie gets shoved on to stage to take Sandra's place, she is reading her lines from the script, leading to such readings as:
    Annie: I know I was engaged to Charles, but Cecil was mine and.
    (Silence. Chris turns the page in Annie's script.)
    Annie: ...I was his.
  • Cultural Translation: The White Sprit in the UK production is referred to as Paint Thinner in the US production. note  Additionally, Cornley Polytechnic was renamed to Cornley University for all US productions.
  • Detective Mole: Inspector Carter is revealed to be this in the Play Within a Play. Of course, by the time this revelation is made, absolutely no one cares about the plot of the play anymore. (It doesn't help that Jonathan has jumped his cue to rush onstage with a gun yelling "Not so fast, Inspector!" twice by this point, which kind of spoils The Reveal.)
    • In the Broadway production, the audience tends to cheer this reveal anyway, much to Jonathan's surprise and relief.
  • Directed by Cast Member: In-Universe example, as Chris directed the Show Within a Show and starred as Inspector Carter.
  • Disappearing Box: This trick is performed in reverse when Sandra manages to appear inside the grandfather clock after having been struggling with Annie to get back onstage only seconds beforehand.
  • The Door Slams You: Happens to Sandra, the actress playing the Femme Fatale (and her impromptu replacements).
  • Dramatic Irony: In-Universe. The characters within the story have to act like nothing is wrong, but both the actors and the audience are aware of the various screw-ups that have unfolded.
  • Duct Tape for Everything:
    • Before the show begins, Annie attempts to reinstall a mantelpiece by gaffer-taping it to the fireplace. It falls off right as Trevor begins his "No Talking or Phones" Warning.
      • This, too, leads to consequences when the script calls for props to be placed upon the mantelpiece, so Annie has to stick her head and hands out of some holes she makes in the mantle to hold the props.
    • She later uses it to tie-up Sandra.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: To be expected, as this is the first of the ...Goes Wrong plays from Mischief Theatre.
    • Dennis doesn't have as much trouble with his lines as he would in later productions. He's also appropriately mortified by his own failings, rather than unwittingly dense as he later becomes.
    • Annie, who in this show is the stage manager and Sandra's reluctant understudy, becomes an actress in her own right starting with Peter Pan Goes Wrong.
    • Max is highly uncomfortable playing intimate scenes with Sandra, and seems far more interested in Trevor. By Peter Pan Goes Wrong, he's fallen for Sandra and never shows any hints of being gay.
  • Easter Egg:
    • When Annie drops her script and sends the pages flying, some of them may land in the stalls. Audience members who pick them up will see that they have parts of the "goes right" version of the play printed on them.
    • If you look on the backs of some of the crew members' shirts, instead of saying "The Murder at Haversham Manor", they may instead display one of the other shows Chris mentions in his opening speech (most notably, Annie wears a shirt from the CPDS' production of Cat: The Musical).
  • Extremely Short Timespan: For obvious reasons, the events of the play unfold in real-time.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It's a play, and it goes wrong.
  • Excuse Plot: The Murder at Haversham Manor, from what we can tell, appears to simply be a slightly hoary old classic murder mystery, but it's only really there to facilitate the real plot of exact how the show will go wrong.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Winston, Arthur's guard dog, gets rather jumpy around Inspector Carter. Or at least he's supposed to, if it weren't for the fact that he went missing before the show started.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: The Show Within a Show breaks rules 1 and 7, as the audience is allowed to follow the killer's thoughts for one scene, and the detective himself committed the crime.
  • Falling Chandelier of Doom: Most of the set comes apart at the seams, but the play keeps this trick in reserve until the last five seconds, with the lights going out mid-"fall".
  • Foreshadowing:
    • While they examine Charles Haversham's body, the characters all comment on how lifelike it seems, foreshadowing the fact that he is not, in fact, dead. Pity Jonathan gets a coughing fit from the powder Dennis just dropped on him.
    • In the Playbill in the Broadway version, there's a note from Chris, who states he thinks the production will "bring the house down." Sure enough, the set collapses near the end of the play.
  • Gender Flip: Some productions (i.e. the Off-Broadway production) will do this whenever a female understudy needs to take over a male role, or vice versa. And while Chris and Max's names are already gender-neutral, other society members may see their name changed when played by an actor of the opposite sex; for example, Trevor would become Tess, and Dennis would become Denise.
  • Get It Over With: By the end of the show, Trevor's so fed up with the production that when Robert forgets his character's dying Last Words, he yells "Just die, for Christ's sake!"
    Robert: Just die, for Chri- how dare you!
  • Goofy Print Underwear: Sandra spends much of Act 2 running around in a shift and printed panties, after Annie is given her dress and her role.
  • Groin Attack: Robert gets punched in the balls while trying to break up a fight between Sandra and Annie.
  • Heroic BSoD: Chris/the Inspector has this when he's unable to find the prop he needs, Max having moved it after accidentally sitting on it. He repeats "a ledger?" over and over as he looks for until he's screaming, then curls up on the couch sobbing. The audience pointing out said ledger is sticking out from under the couch does not help. (Especially since it's technically a chaise-longue.)
  • Inadvertent Entrance Cue: Jonathan twice jumps his entrance cue (both times in the wrong act) to rush onstage with a gun yelling, "Not so fast, Inspector!", both times because someone on stage said the line "What a devil of a situation this is!".
  • Insistent Terminology: When the audience points out that the ledger is under the couch, Chris will angrily (and tearfully) say that it's a chaise-longue.
    Chris: [in the Broadway production] Bloody Americans!
  • Irony: A lot of the dialogue becomes humorous when the condition of the actor contrasts with what ends up being said.
  • Is This Thing Still On?: Act 2 begins with Trevor broadcasting some disparaging remarks about the play across the theatre before Chris desperately signals him to turn off his headset.
    Trevor: Nah, it ain't going very well, actually. [beat, laughs] Yeah, she's still unconscious, and we still haven't found the dog.
  • Lady Not-Appearing-in-This-Game: On the posters outside of the theatre in the Broadway production, one includes headshots of the cast and one of Leonardo DiCaprio. A caption on the image reads "Not appearing Monday through Sunday". note  On the West End it is Tom Cruise.
  • Large Ham: Half the cast. The other half favour Bad "Bad Acting".
  • The Living Dead: In-universe, Jonathan, as the deceased Charles Haversham, gets into a sneezing fit after powder is dropped on him, gets to be horrified as he is rolled off of the chaise longue and falls face-first to the floor, and then has to walk off-stage when the stretcher fails and the actors involve merely mime taking the body offstage. Of course, since the character is meant to actually be alive...
  • Madness Mantra: A misplaced prop becomes this, as Chris's attempt to locate a ledger at a climactic moment results in him screaming "A ledger!? A ledger!!??" with increasing hysteria before eventually collapsing into a sobbing mess.
  • Malaproper: Dennis, who plays Perkins the Butler, can't say some of his words correctly, despite having written them on his hand.
  • Milking the Giant Cow: Some of the cast have a tendency to indulge in this, with Max and Sandra being the worst offenders.
  • Miming the Cues / Non-Verbal Miscommunication: When Annie as Florence loses her script pages, Dennis tries to act out the response she needs to give for a question he asks:
    Dennis/Perkins: Where were you when the murder was committed?
    (He alternates between pointing down and pretending to drink tea.)
    Annie/Florence: [misinterpreting] I was on the floor with a moustache.
    Robert/Thomas: That makes perfect sense; so was I.
  • Minimalist Cast:
    • The Play Within a Play only features seven characters, two of which are played by the same actor.
    • As Chris notes before the show starts, the drama society's limited numbers meant previous shows of theirs had to be form-fitted around this trope, leading to such productions as Two Sisters, The Lion and the Wardrobe, and Cat.
  • Newhart Phonecall / Repeating So the Audience Can Hear: Thomas (Robert) fields 3 of these during the show: first, when he's telling the operator to send Inspector Carter to the manor; second, when he's fielding a call from his accountant regarding missing funds from his private savings note ; third, when said accountants call him back to report on a transaction they were able to trace. note 
  • Never Work with Children or Animalsinvoked: It's revealed before the show starts and during the intermission that the dog brought on to play Winston has gone missing. So, when the time comes for Arthur (Max) to enter with Winston, he's forced to hold an empty leash and make dog noises to make up for it (though he doesn't seem to mind).
  • Noodle Incident: The various previous plays that are mentioned, though the titles give us some idea what had occurred.
  • "No Talking or Phones" Warning: Trevor delivers this, and uses it to ask the audience to help him find a missing Duran Duran CD.
  • Overly-Long Gag: The climax of Act 1 sees Dennis constantly repeating an earlier line; thus he, Chris, Annie, and Robert are forced to repeat a certain section of the play until Dennis finally remembers the correct line. This goes on for several minutes and leads to Robert having to drink from the container of white spirit multiple times.
  • Play Within a Play: The Murder at Haversham Manor
  • Pushed in Front of the Audience: When Sandra gets knocked out by the set door, Annie the stage manager is hurriedly dressed in Sandra's costume and shoved out on stage with a script in her hand. And when she gets knocked out, Trevor the effects manager is press-ganged into the role.
  • Quote Mine: The in-universe program for the London production features an ad page showcasing the drama society's upcoming productions, as well as quotes from reviews for their recent production of Hamlet. The first 2 of said quotes invoke this trope:
"There's no question this was a production... from beginning to end"
The Cornley Student Gazette
"In all my years as a reviewer I've never seen anything else like it"
The Cornley Coronet
  • Rake Take: Some floorboards are reinstalled before the show starts; Max steps on one of them, hitting him in the face.
  • Reading the Stage Directions Out Loud:
    • When the female lead Sandra is knocked out, the stage manager Annie is shoved on to the stage with a copy of the script to take her place. Needless to say, she starts reading the stage directions out loud ("How will I go on? Sobs."), and ends Act 1 by declaring the evening "a disaster! Blackout! Intermission!"
    • Dennis declares that his character Perkins is going to "my quarters! Exits!" at one point, and then stands there posing until his error occurs to him.
  • Running Gag: Plenty, including a missing Duran Duran CD, the dog that was supposed to be used in the production being missing, the actors accidentally drinking white spirit (and subsequently performing a Spit Take), Max crashing into the support beam, various set pieces falling down, Max grinning out at the audience, Dennis mispronouncing words, and the actors playing the character of Florence getting knocked unconscious by set-pieces (usually the door).
  • Rule of Three:
    • The Door Slams You gag. The first time, it knocks out Sandra. The second time, it gets Annie. The third time, Annie catches it and slams it back shut (with an angry Sandra behind it, although she mysteriously pops out of the locked clock seconds later, having apparently teleported past the door).
    • Thomas (Robert) keeps asking Trevor for a line, and Trevor keeps not responding and saying something else snarky or off-hand instead. The first two times, Thomas repeats the snark word-for-word before realizing it's not his line; the third time he cottons on first.
    • The Reveal of The Murder at Haversham Manor is inadvertently ruined twice by Jonathan rushing on stage and shouting, "Not so fast, Inspector!" before his cue. He gets it right the third time around.
    • Trevor starts the show asking if anyone's seen a Duran Duran CD. He later accidentally plays the music as a cue, letting the audience know he found it. At the play's climax, when everyone is at their wit's end, Robert pulls the play-within-a-play's evidence out of a handbag, including "One ticket to DURAN DURAN!" holding up the CD case as everyone looks up at a facepalming Trevor.
  • Saying Sound Effects Out Loud: When Max and Robert's swords break during their fight scene, they're forced to make sword-clanging noises as they mime out the rest of the fight.
  • Slapstick Knows no Gender: Adjusting for the ratio of women to men, the female characters get just as beat up by the set (and each other) as the guys do.
  • Sounding It Out: Twice; when Cecil (Max) is reading Charles' (Jonathan) diary, and when Inspector Carter (Chris) reads Charles' will. In the second case, he couldn't remove the ribbon that sealed the document, so he has to pretend to read from the closed will.
    • In some performances, the diary will be sealed as well, as Annie attempted to stand it upright on an unstable mantelpiece with gaffer tape.
  • Spiritual Successor: To Noises Off.
  • Spit Take: The first time one of the cast takes a swig of white spirit instead of whiskey (and multiple times thereafter).
  • Stunt Castinginvoked: Parodied and subverted in the Broadway production's window advertising. In addition to the Lady Not-Appearing-in-This-Game example above, one of the advertisements reads:
Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett,
Academy Award winner J. K. Simmons,
Academy Award nominee Harrison Ford,
Emmy and Golden Globe nominee Will Ferrell, and
Emmy and Tony nominee Neil Patrick Harris...

...have all seen The Play That Goes Wrong.
  • Stylistic Suck: Zig-Zagged. While the acting and the sets are problematic, the plot actually makes cohesive sense. Granted, its still an intentionally mediocre piece of writing, but its quality is never Played for Laughs.
  • The Show Must Go On: Say what you like about the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, but they don't give up and will finish their play, come what may.
  • The Show Must Go Wrong: The play is built entirely around this; according to what we hear about the in-universe group, their shows are generally absolute catastrophes. Bad "Bad Acting", mislaid props, miscued sound effects and actors coming on too early are only the start of it. And if Chris (the Director and the Inspector) is to be believed, this isn't the worst it's ever been.
  • Tap on the Head: Sandra, Annie and the two crew members who are knocked unconscious at various points seem to recover just fine.
  • Title Drop: Jonathan caps off The Summation at the end by saying "let us hope we never again see...a murder at Haversham Manor", which doubles as a Self-Deprecation gag. Of course, this can barely be heard over the other actors' bickering, the set completing its collapse, and Trevor playing his Duran Duran.
  • Took the Bad Film Seriously: In-universe example with Chris; the cast list implies that he's the only one with theater experience, and it's clear that he's desperately trying to salvage the play.
  • Trash the Set: The set slowly falls apart over the course of the show, with the whole thing finally collapsing during the climax. This escalates throughout the show—at first, it's only the decorations, but then the stage parts begin to fall apart. In fact, after intermission, they attempt to fix the damage, only for the decorations to fall right back off again, at which point they give up.
  • The Vamp: The character of Florence; Sandra turns it up to eleven by playing even her "hysterical episodes" seductively. It goes even past that when Trevor, forced to read Florence's lines, starts fake-grinding on the Inspector as a "hysterical episode".
  • Visual Pun: When Thomas is asked to remove the fainted Florence's hands from her face, Florence is currently represented by a giant clock (because Sandra is trapped inside it). Robert pulls the hour and minute hands off the face of the clock.
  • Walking Spoiler: While portraying the murder victim's corpse, Jonathan quite literally proves to be a walking spoiler when he rushes onstage with a rifle declaring "Not so fast inspector!" before he's scripted to do so. And just in case the audience forgot he ruined the twists of both his character's survival and the inspector's villainy, he reminded them by jumping his cue a second time later on.
  • Wrong Song Gag: At the beginning of the play, the cast asks audience members to let them know if they find a missing Duran Duran CD. Later, a song by Duran Duran begins to play instead of a dramatic musical spike.
    Trevor: Found the Duran Duran, carry on.