“There are always moments in a comedy that you’re convinced are going to rock the house,” says actor and director Mark Bell. “Then, the first night, there is nothing.”
Bell made a name for himself on things that didn’t go as planned. Director of the tumultuous The Play That Goes Wrong, he created a career out of accidents and chaos. When the tech breaks down on our Zoom call, he jokes that it’s his trademark. Now Bell runs a play of Cluedo, which even after more than 70 years remains one of the most popular board games in the world. Written by Sandy Rustin and starring former EastEnders actress Michelle Collins, this comedy-thriller adaptation is based on Jonathan Lynn’s 1985 film Clue, about a group of strangers invited to a mansion one night. ‘thunderstorm. Upon arrival, they are given aliases – Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard, the characters we all know and like to suspect – and told not to reveal who they really are.
Growing up, Bell watched television with his father every Saturday lunchtime. “There were only three TV channels, remember,” he says, “but there would always be a Laurel and Hardy short and a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Or Harold Lloyd, or Buster Keaton Years later, he got to see how much those shows influenced his own comedy.”Monty Python is Spinal Tap,” he continues, listing his favorites. “These characters take themselves very seriously in completely bizarre situations. All of these things have fueled the kind of theater that I do.
The trick to being funny, says Bell, is not trying to be funny. “As ridiculous as things are, play them straight. Take Cluedo. “For the audience, it’s funny, but for the people it happens to, it’s a tragedy. They have to be real people. The danger with any show going off the rails at increasing speed, he says, is is that it’s very easy to veer into parody or cartoonishness “It’s hard on stage to find the balance between absolute nonsense and absolute truth.”
How do you maintain a sense of authenticity with a comedy as broad as one based on a board game? “You have to build the character with the same kind of detail that you would a dramatic character,” he says. In rehearsal, Bell will have his actors improvise outside the world of the play: what if Mrs Peacock and Miss Scarlett were going for a drink? “You’re not trying to make these things funny,” he insists. “You think: how do these characters interact? What is their story ? You find the details. Once you have that base, that’s when you can start creating comic mayhem.
The Play That Goes Wrong was taken from the clown lessons he taught at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda). “I’m not talking about circus clowns,” he says. “It’s a comedy of characters. It’s Laurel and Hardy. Bell trained with Jacques Lecoq, the actor and trainer famous for his physical theatre, including the arts of mime and clowning. Other alumni of Lecoq’s school in Paris include Toby Jones and Simon McBurney of Complicité. “Clowning was the last thing we did,” Bell says, “and I remember completely failing.” He kept going until he broke; he started laughing once he stopped trying for them.
The Play That Goes Wrong was a commercial and critical success (it was described as a “heartbreaking hit” by the New York Times), and toured the world. Recently, Bell visited him in London, Brighton and Budapest. Now his attention is focused on yet another series of chaotic events, this time with a murderous side.
When Bell first joined Cluedo, he bought an original game on eBay. “It was cheap because all the parts were a bit broken,” he explains. “You can get untouched versions for thousands of pounds. Even though I liked the idea of the show, I didn’t like it that much. When he opened the box, among the guns and daggers, he found decades-old guesses and accusations. “People have been playing this game since the late 1940s,” he says, “and we’re still playing it today. I think the attraction is in thrillers. It is something that affects us. »
The play was originally set in Washington DC, but Bell turned it into a mansion outside of London, so references to American politicians become MPs in Westminster. He also moved the period from the mid-1950s to 1949, the year Cluedo was first released in Britain. “In the US version they used McCarthy’s witch hunts as a backdrop, so the characters have this sense of foreboding, this sense that people might be after you. It just seemed to me that for the UK , it was better set in a more Agatha Christie-esque time period.
He also brought in the Lynskey scandal of 1949, in which a peer who had been assigned to investigate corruption around rationing turned out to be involved in questionable dealings on the show himself. “One of the characters is supposed to be the wife of a very corrupt politician,” Bell explains. “It was just fine.”
He talks about his Cluedo adaptation with obvious enthusiasm, especially when it comes to outsmarting audiences. “Part of the fun is working on the thriller. But if you don’t know the movie, you won’t be able to understand it. He again refers to Keaton. “He used to talk about having to double the audience. You have to trick them into thinking they know exactly what’s going to happen, and then pull the rug out from under them.
He describes a famous scene from Keaton’s first film, One Week, where a couple dragging a house over a train track prepares for it to be smashed to pieces, only for the approaching train to speed past on the track behind them. Then, when they are in rescue mode, another train comes from the other direction and heads straight for their house. “So he double-crosses you,” Bell says rapturously of the 1920 film. “He makes you think you know what’s going to happen, and then you don’t, and that’s a relief.” Then he hits you with something bigger. It’s brilliant storytelling. I will try to play tricks like that.
But that desire for silliness is grounded in something deeper, he says: a shared desire to connect through laughter. “Every culture in the world has some form of clown, which is basically someone who falls down to make people laugh. But that’s not a laugh of cruelty, it’s a laugh of empathy. We all live our lives doing catastrophically bad things all the time and then pretending it didn’t happen When we see the clowns – we see Charlie Chaplin, we see Laurel and Hardy, we see Keaton, we see Ricky Gervais in The Office – and we know we’re as stupid as they are.
“I don’t want to pretend it’s a deep experience,” Bell continues, “because it’s entertainment. But entertainment is such an important part of our cultural life. Comedy, he argues, “is the hardest thing to do well. You have to be both truthfully dramatic and funny at the same time. There’s a glint in his eye when he says it. “Chekhov is a walk in the park by comparison.”
Cluedo is at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, until February 5rush; tour until July 30there.