Stop – The Play (Trafalgar Studios)

‘An indiscriminate scattergun approach to comedy is as funny as toothache’

James Woolley, Tosin Cole, Hatty Preston, Adam Riches, Ben Starr and Hannah Stokely
James Woolley, Tosin Cole, Hatty Preston, Adam Riches, Ben Starr and Hannah Stokely
© Matt Humphrey

On paper, at least, it might have sounded like a promising idea: award-winning hot shot comedian Adam Riches playing a deluded and overweening actor in a send-up of a chaotically awful play produced and directed by Reduced Shakespeare Company veterans Tim Beckmann and John Schwab.

In the event, David Spicer’s script and Schwab’s production only prove that an indiscriminate scattergun approach to comedy is as funny as toothache and that for things to go wrong they have to be rooted in the possibility of them going right in the first place. Michael Frayn’s backstage classic Noises Off is the gold standard in this respect.

Actually, the play that goes wrong here is a disaster to start with, which rather defeats the whole point of the exercise. The first act is a rehearsal for a pseudy psychodrama about a struggling art teacher with a pet monkey and a fountain who smears his day across his own sensitivity like an egg across a plate. Yes, I think that’s what he said and, fair do’s, Riches, who never stops bristling and posing all night, batters some kind of response out of the audience.

The first night crowd of friends and well-wishers in the tiny Trafalgar studio certainly reacted generously, but with increasing incredulity, as the second act took off and instantly belly-flopped as a total re-write (write-off?) now called Banksy Ain’t Gay. As things went from bad to unbearable, Riches was reduced to tickling the ear of his own publicist and putting his head in the combined laps of a couple in the front row.

Hatty Preston is the wife, Hannah Stokely the old flame and Charlie Cameron the sweetly dedicated stage manager, with Ben Starr going berserk from the off as a pretty boy director; this dreadful performance is a classic example of how not to act in farce. Mind you, as his last line of defence is "It’s in the script" you can hardly blame him for revving up the ante and diving off the top board in the first line.

And the trouble with that is that there’s no water in the pool. The resultant mess is literally unwatchable. I wonder if Peter Bowles sniffed disaster in withdrawing from the production before rehearsals began. His replacement as the old laddie actor, James Woolley, is fairly good in an amiably bumbling sort of way.

But again, there’s a big difference between witty send-up and preposterous, ignorant name-calling. Woolley’s old stager claims to have been written out of a play by Trevor Griffiths ("the bastard") and then cast in a black face role in Sizwe Banzi Is Dead in Tunbridge Wells. These crazy details are a give-away: the play’s target is not the blissfully deranged dynamics of the play that goes wrong, but the play that goes right, and then left, in the serious political theatre.

Stop – the Play runs at Trafalgar Studios until 27 June