The Play That Goes Wrong

London's award-winning smash comedy!

Grades 6-12, Eisenhower Theater (2 hours), December 18, 2018

Directed by Mark Bell

What would happen if Sherlock Holmes and Monty Python had a Broadway baby? You’d get New York and London’s award-winning smash comedy! Called “the funniest play Broadway has ever seen” (The Huffington Post), this classic murder mystery is chock-full of mishaps and madcap mania. Welcome to opening night of The Murder at Haversham Manor, where things are quickly going from bad to utterly disastrous. With an unconscious leading lady, a corpse that can’t play dead, and actors who trip over everything (including their lines), it’s “comic gold” (Variety) sure to bring down the house.

Student Guide

So, What’s Going On?

In the aptly named The Play That Goes Wrong, very little goes right—and, as promised, just about everything goes wrong. The curtain rises on the actors and crew of the modern-day Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society preparing for their own curtain to rise; it’s also opening night for their whodunit, Murder at Haversham Manor. Their murder mystery takes place in 1922 at the home of Charles Haversham, who lies “dead” on stage as the curtain rises on Act I of the drama society’s play.

(Are you getting all this?)

As Charles’s friends and his fiancée Florence express their distress over his death, a series of plot twists unfolds, and technical difficulties begin to complicate the production. Sound effects go awry, set pieces malfunction, and misplaced props thwart the actors’ efforts to fulfill their dramatic intent. They persevere nonetheless, steadfastly carrying out their prescribed roles with absurd adherence to their scripted lines and movements, even when these actions no longer make sense.

With her groom-to-be’s body barely cold, Florence finds herself on the receiving end of a new proposal! (How timely!) Meanwhile, the Inspector arrives to investigate Charles’s death. Could Florence’s brother have been involved? Or Florence herself? What about Charles’s brother—who also happens to be Florence’s lover…?

(We warned you there’d be plot twists and turns.)

As the investigation continues, the action becomes increasingly madcap. A door hits Sandra, the actress playing Florence, who passes out, and Stage Manager Annie must replace her, with script in hand. Miscues, missteps, and misinterpretations lead to growing chaos as a poorly constructed set puts the actors in danger. The fake elevator’s floor breaks, the second story of the manor tilts precipitously, and too many actors to name end up nearly crushed or otherwise imperiled.

(And so, you have to ask…)

Can the Inspector solve the mystery of Charles’s murder? Will Sandra regain consciousness? If/when she does, will Annie be willing to give up playing Florence? If/when she isn’t, which woman will prevail? And has anyone noticed the set’s too-loose chandelier...?

It looks like most characters will survive the play-within-a-play. But will they survive The Play That Goes Wrong?

Here’s a sneak peek (“The Play That Goes Wrong at The Kennedy Center”): https://youtu.be/1EyI5mAFY90

Who’s Who

Here’s a very, very helpful note: In The Play That Goes Wrong, names are two-for-the-price-of-one, with each actor playing a character and each of those characters acting in the play-within-a-play. Good luck keeping them straight! (If in doubt, focus on the names of the murder mystery characters, as they’re used more frequently.)

Characters in The Play That Goes Wrong

Characters in Murder at Haversham Manor

Annie, stage manager for the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society (CPDS)

Fills in as Florence Colleymoore (see below)

Trevor, lighting and sound operator for CPDS

Fills in as Florence Colleymoore (see below)

Chris, head of CPDS; director of Murder at Haversham Manor

Inspector Carter, esteemed local official

Jonathan, actor for CPDS

Charles Haversham, deceased

Robert, actor for CPDS

Thomas Colleymoore, Charles’s old friend

Dennis, actor for CPDS

Perkins, Charles’s butler

Max, actor for CPDS

Cecil Haversham, Charles’s brother, and Arthur, his gardener

Sandra, actor for CPDS

Florence Colleymoore, Charles’s fiancée and Thomas’s sister

The Play Within a Play

There’s a long dramatic tradition of performing plays within plays, though the inner production does not usually comprise as much of the overall show as in the case of The Play That Goes Wrong. Among the most famous early examples, Shakespeare made use of this technique in his comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in Hamlet, a tragedy.

In Hamlet, the title character devises a theatrical performance intended to mirror a crime he believes his uncle to have committed in order to prompt a reaction that will prove his uncle’s guilt. Much more recently, the comedic musical The Producers told the story of two theater producers who put on a show they intend to be a flop, Springtime for Hitler, and find that it is an unexpected hit.

In The Play That Goes Wrong, the “inner” show is the entirety of the performance we see, with our Act I corresponding to the characters’ Act I, and the same for Act II. We see the story of an amateur production gone awry. Just as in Hamlet, the inner show is a murder mystery (but this one is set in 1922 and is not being performed for the purpose of catching an actual murderer).


Caption: In The Play That Goes Wrong, the standing clock becomes a stand-in for a character (who is stuck inside); here, it has “fainted” and is resting.

The Language of Stagecraft

Because you’re watching two plays in one, you might like to familiarize yourself with these words related to theatrical productions:

Blackout: what happens when all the lights on stage go out (on purpose); often occurs at the end of an act.

Company: a group of theater performers.

Cue: a line that prompts an action to take place, including another actor speaking a line, entering, or exiting; a change in lighting; a sound effect; a scene change; or a prop placement.

Interval: another word for intermission, which is the break between acts.

Opening night: the first official performance of a theater production.

Stage manager: a person who takes charge of “tech,” or the technical elements of a show, including sets, lighting, props, and costumes. In this show, Annie is the stage manager for the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society.

What to Look and Listen for…

In The Play That Goes Wrong, actors use physicality to emphasize the absurdity of their show’s unraveling. Exaggerated physical movements also known as “slapstick” (a term originating from the loud sound produced by hitting two wooden sticks together to mimic a slap), help to promote the insanity as the cast tries mightily to perform their play.

The show’s promotional materials reference Monty Python, an apt comparison to the 1970s British comedy group also known for its physical humor (search for the sketch “The Ministry of Silly Walks”—and then, if you still have a taste for British physical humor, search for “Mr. Bean”!). In The Play That Goes Wrong, watch for ways that the actors take advantage of carefully rehearsed “accidental” movements to make their actions funnier.


Caption: An actual slap stick
Accessed from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slapstick#/media/File:Bic_(instrument).jpg

Keeping all of this in mind, check out:

  • How the murder mystery actors point to their verbal uncertainties by using their bodies. Dennis, who plays Perkins, refers to cues he’s written on the back of his hand when he needs to say a difficult word, such as “façade” or “morose.” And when Annie fills in for Sandra to play the role of Florence, she reads directly and without subtlety from a script.
  • How the show takes advantage of all set pieces and props, finding ways to break or mishandle each one to add to the comedic effect. The stretcher’s canvas rips, leading the actors to carry it out absurdly without Charles Haversham’s body. The door jams, the door handle falls off, the contents of the coal scuttle catch fire, and the entire second floor begins to tilt Titanic-like. Anything that can go wrong does.
  • The way characters must rush to compensate for (deliberate) structural problems on the set of the murder mystery. When the Stage Manager, Annie, can’t attach the mantelpiece to the stage wall, she has to hold props herself (see below). When the actor playing Perkins can’t leave through the door, which is stuck, he instead climbs into the clock. The actors are flexible when it suits them but stick to the script rigidly at other times—all to maximize comedic effect.


Caption: With no mantelpiece in sight, Stage Manager Annie becomes a human candelabra.

Think About…

  • How, in addition to featuring a play within a play, the cast of The Play That Goes Wrong breaks the fourth wall (between themselves and you, the audience) when bookending the acts. Look for cast members to solicit help from or speak to the audience.
  • Moments of dramatic irony, meaning that the audience enjoys the tension of knowing more than a character does and awaiting the results. We know, for instance, that the Stage Manager, Annie, has replaced the empty bottle of “scotch” with a flammable (and potentially toxic) product, though the actors don’t notice—and we also can foresee their horrified reactions before they take their first sips.
  • How half-hearted pantomime adds another humorous element to the action, as when Max, playing Arthur the Gardener, walks in with a leash and no dog. “Get down!” he tells the empty space. “Quiet, Winston!” he shushes into silence. And, ultimately, to remove the dog from the house—“I’ll put him outside”—Max throws the leash out the door.


Caption: Max and Sandra—as Cecil and Florence—almost kiss.

Take Action: Challenge Yourself

Mischief Theatre has made good use of the “goes wrong” concept, from The Play That Goes Wrong to Peter Pan Goes Wrong to The Nativity Play Goes Wrong. In fact, much of comedy relies on surprise outcomes, from the slipping-on-a-banana-peel gag to the trickery and mistaken identities that fuel the plots of farces. Mishaps are the underpinning of the concept of irony—when what you expect to see or hear is not what ends up appearing. That’s certainly the case in The Play That Goes Wrong.

You, too, can make use of this technique to drive your own comedic productions. To practice, pick a short story, a scene from your favorite movie or play, or even a historical moment. Then try to rewrite it and have everything go wrong. Perhaps Little Red Riding Hood is color blind; or Barack Obama decides to run for president of the marching band instead of President of the United States of America; or the Grinch steals Chanukah instead of Christmas, and his dog Max keeps stopping to eat latkes and loses track of their sleigh. Imagine all the wacky potential of just one altered plot element—and then add more!

If you’re comfortable sharing on social media, post your comic composition to your favorite platform using the hashtag #storiesgonewrong.


Caption: The set’s window provides a more reliable entrance than the door, which gets stuck shut.


Go even deeper with the The Play That Goes Wrong Extras.

Teacher & Parent Guide

Parents and Teachers: We’ve Got You Covered

Hey there, adults. New to The Play That Goes Wrong? Loving the show and want to know more? We hear you. Here are some resources that will allow you to extend and enrich your post-show discussions with your kids:

First of all, The Play That Goes Wrong, written by Mischief Theatre members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, first appeared onstage in London in December 2012. Back then, it was called The Murder Before Christmas, but the premise was the same. In 2013, the show rebranded under its current name and, after winning the Best New Comedy award in London’s 2015 Olivier© Awards, it continued to Broadway where it opened in 2017 and also won the 2017 Tony© Award for Best Scenic Design in a Play.

Meanwhile, the Mischief Theatre, recognizing a good thing, has written shows with a similar premise, including The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and The Nativity Play Goes Wrong.

Making Fun

In The Play That Goes Wrong, playwrights parody on-stage mishaps in community theater productions. But artists can poke fun at any topic using virtually any genre. Consider these forms:

  • Mockumentaries = mock (or fake/joke) + documentary. These films take the concept of a nonfiction movie and use it to make fun of this concept using a fictional (but seemingly real) cast of characters. Examples: the films of Christopher Guest, including This is Spinal Tap, about a (fictional) heavy metal band, and Best in Show, about owners and their dogs at a (fake) kennel club show.
  • Satirical proposals. Sometimes a tongue-in-cheek document can be used to show the ridiculousness of a social attitude. In Jonathan Swift’s 1729 work, A Modest Proposal, he pointed out the mistreatment of the lower classes by drafting a document that suggested (in jest) that poor Irishmen sell their children to the rich to be eaten. Check it out at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1080/1080-h/1080-h.htm
  • Joke news. If you’ve read articles in The Onion, you have likely seen the way this fake online newspaper makes use of journalistic basics—who, what, where, when, why, and the catchy headline—and use them to create comedic articles. (A classic: “CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years.”) For another variant on this concept, check out McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, also known for its timely satire. [Note that these websites may include mature language that is not safe for work.]
  • Horror movies. In the 2017 movie Get Out, writer/director Jordan Peele makes use of the conventions of horror films to mock and reveal the absurdity—and actual horror—of racial discrimination.

Okay, you’re officially ready for The Play That Goes Wrong.


Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Tiffany Bryant
Assistant Manager, Audience Enrichment

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

All production photos by Jeremy Daniel.

Writer: Marina Ruben

Content Editor: Lisa Resnick

Logistics Coordination: Katherine Huseman

Producer and Program Manager: Tiffany A. Bryant



David M. Rubenstein

Deborah F. Rutter

Mario R. Rossero
Senior Vice President

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Major support for educational programs at the Kennedy Center is provided by David M. Rubenstein through the Rubenstein Arts Access Program.

Kennedy Center education and related artistic programming is made possible through the generosity of the National Committee for the Performing Arts.

© 2018 The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

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