Southwark Playhouse, London – until 11 March 2023
That masterpiece of physical comedy which is The Play That Goes Wrong has been doing the business (pandemic aside) for just about ten years now but it shows little sign of being put out to pasture; creators Mischief Theatre have just announced a further booking period taking it right through the coming spring. Original director Mark Bell is going to be hard pushed to create that level of success with his latest production Windfall which has just opened at the Southwark Playhouse. Although it purports to be a farcical comedy, I only found myself intermittently chuckling; the rest of the time I sat with my metaphorical head in my metaphorical hands.
Let me say right from the off that Bell orchestrates proceedings with aplomb and clearly knows how to choreograph the levels of panic which inform the latter stages of the play. The hard working cast also give it everything they have got, approaching the physical aspects with gusto although I fear for their vocal chords with so much screaming and shouting. The fault lies fairly and squarely with Scooter Pietsch’s script and with the decision to stage this dramatically and morally weak piece in the first place. The play has been a hit (at least so we are told) on the other side of the Atlantic though it’s taken a number of years to reach these shores and that’s an indicator that it might have fared better remaining where it was.
The plot veers from the ridiculous to the outrageous. A group of downtrodden employees in the office of a data entry firm band together to try and make their dreams of escape come true. They especially want to get away from their boss Glenn (Jack Bennett), a hideous serial workplace bully (at least that aspect has a degree of topicality) and are hopeful/gullible enough that they will achieve this by adhering to a vision that one of them has had that they will win big on the lottery. As long as they each buy 911 one dollar tickets – each! – and then search through these for the winning piece of paper at 9:11 am the following morning. Really? Yes really.
In essence Act One is too slow while Act Two is too loud. The first half spends its entire length introducing the characters; apart from the office bully, there’s the feisty office manager (Judith Amsenga), the office incompetent (Wesley Griffith), the office newbie (Joanne Clifton) and the office religious zealot (Gabriel Paul) – he’s the one with the vision addiction. Then it plods wearily through the plot which raises more questions than it answers. For instance, how is it that Mr Visionary is able to climb through the bathroom window, go down the street to the bank and then climb back in again all in the space of about three minutes? Perhaps Americans don’t have to queue in banks like we do! (And before someone tells me this is dramatic licence, why would the set designer (Rachel Stone) be allowed to point up this huge discrepancy by having a working clock counting down the time?) And would the mini market that they all absolutely have to purchase the tickets from have 4,555 of these anyway? Even the wildest farces have to obey the rules of logic and credibility but by now both of those things were only a distant memory.
Act Two brings the inevitable fallout with revelations of theoretical dirty dealings and double crossings. Has someone secreted the winning ticket in order to scoop the entire pot? Formulaically, one by one each of the suspects is implicated and attacked by the rest of the group in an orchestrated “Lord Of The Files” (sic) type frenzy characterised by fortissimo volume, repeated swearing (always good for a cheap laugh) and an accompanying gore fest worthy of Quentin Tarantino. To be fair the use of office stationery items (scissors, stapler, shredder, paper guillotine) as implements of violence was inventive but it did lead me to wonder whether I was watching an office based interpretation of Titus Andronicus.
And then Glenn arrives and….but no I can’t go on. Suffice to say that after a few more largely predictable plot twists there is a resolution of sorts. But by then I felt as battered, bruised and ill used as the lottery hopefuls. I had hoped that after a disappointing comedy on Monday (Winner’s Curse) that Windfall might have corrected the balance; despite what I’ve written I really hoped I would like this show. But it seems that, currently, nobody knows how to write a good, focused and (whisper it) funny comedy anymore. Just as well that John Cleese is going to show the world how it is done by reviving Fawlty Towers. Or perhaps we should all pray that he’ll win big on the lottery and then he won’t have to bother us with the most terrible idea ever!