In some ways, you could trace the origin of Neptune Theatre’s latest production to a late 1990s-era Canadian TV drama and the back row of an airline flight from Halifax to Sydney. It was there, in between shoots for CBC’s Pit Pony—which also happened to star a young Elliot Page in his first acting role—that a 20-something Jonathan Torrens and Jeremy Webb forged a friendship that would endure for two decades and counting. It was a relationship based on a mutual love and knack for one simple thing: Making each other laugh.
“In those days, we used to fly [to shoots], which was an 18-minute flight, and there were tears pouring down my cheeks,” Torrens recalls, speaking by phone with The Coast on a September morning.
That same spirit lies at the heart of their newest collaboration, The Play That Goes Wrong—an Olivier Award-winning comedy that sees Torrens in the role of Chris Bean, director of a murder mystery theatre show on its opening night. But instead of heart-pounding drama, as TPTGW showbill promises, “things are quickly going from bad to utterly disastrous.” Described as Monty Python-meets-Sherlock Holmes, the show debuts at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall Stage on Tuesday, Sept. 26. Tickets for the opening week are a hot commodity.
Webb, Neptune’s artistic director, describes the show as “one of the most complicated beasts that we’ve ever done.” It was enough to lure Torrens from the TV screen to the theatre stage for the first time in more than 30 years.
Wander up Sackville Street from Neptune Theatre, then make a right onto Bell Road, and you’ll find the backdrop for one of Torrens’ best-known TV roles, as vice-principal Robert Cheeley in Mr. D. (The sitcom—which lasted eight seasons—was partially filmed at Citadel High School. It earned Torrens both an ACTRA Award and Canadian Screen Award.) Keep walking toward Quinpool Road, and soon enough you’ll come to the grassy field that once housed St. Patrick’s High School. It was there in the 1980s that a teenaged Torrens last performed theatre for a live audience.
“I guess I’m looking for new kicks at this age and stage,” Torrens says. “I like the idea of doing something that is outside my comfort zone a little bit. And I [also] liked the notion that, comedically, this show—as it says in the liner notes—is a play that goes wrong, not a play being done badly.”
Landing Torrens and his comedic chops for TPTGW was “irresistible,” Webb tells The Coast. “His style of performance fits this play so perfectly, because the play has to seem like it’s improvised.”
Improv is Torrens’ forte: From hosting the sketch/talk show Jonovision in the mid-1990s to bringing the rapper-slash hustler J-Roc to life in Trailer Park Boys to portraying Mennonite neighbour Noah Dyck in Letterkenny, the Charlottetown, PEI native has made a career of one-liners and razor-sharp comedic riffs. But in TPTWG, Torrens relishes a different challenge: Earning new laughs from the same tightly-scripted performance.
“For an improviser, having to use the same script every night and try to find new moments, or alternate reads on the same lines, I’m really interested in that process,” he says. Torrens describes his character, Chris Bean, as “overconfident and underqualified”—a theme, he says, that extends to just about “all of the characters that I’ve played,” from J-Roc to Mr. Cheeley.
“The fun challenge of playing a character like Chris Bean is trying to figure out, as the wheels come off the bus, when does he wince? When does he pick up the pieces and try to soldier through it, and when does he just become resigned to the fact that this [play] is not going the way he thought? I’m trying to imagine at a certain point in the play, in his mind, he’s on Kijiji looking at job postings, because he knows that it’s probably over for him.”
For Webb, bringing The Play That Goes Wrong to Neptune Theatre is part of a broader effort to deliver more comedy to Halifax. That continues with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, starring The Lord of the Rings’ Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd.
“Laughter is now so important, so that we remember the joys of this world,” Neptune’s director says. “So, hopefully this play will contribute to that.”
The Play That Goes Wrong is on at Neptune Theatre from Sept. 26 until Oct. 22.