It is one of the universal truths of theatre that it is extremely hard to convincingly pretend to do things wrong.

From the days of silent movie stars Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton hanging from skyscrapers or narrowly escaping collapsing buildings or steaming trains, through Les Dawson’s off-key piano skits to Mr Bean, many a comedic triumph has involved clever people pretending to be daft.

That spirit of choreographed slapstick is alive and well in The Play That Goes Wrong, on at the Oxford Playhouse all this week.

The premise is simple: a student am-dram group, the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, are staging a production of a country house mystery, called The Murder at Haversham Hall, which bears a cheeky likeness to The Mousetrap.

From the start things go wrong, and escalate farcically from there – concluding, without wishing to spoil any surprises, in a destructive debacle going some considerable way beyond the cast just missing a cue or mispronouncing their lines.

It’s all very silly, of course, and delicious for that.

The audience were in fits from the beginning, with hoots and belly laughs interspersed with real gasps of sympathy every time someone on stage got hurt. Which, to be honest, happened a lot.

On the surface, there’s nothing very sophisticated here, it’s just good old fashioned Laurel and Hardy-style slapstick. But that’s to underplay the talent and sheer stagecraft, not only of the cast but of the crew whose technical expertise ensures the whole thing falls apart so tremendously well... or should that be badly?

In the midst of the chaos of the second act I mused on what would happen if this play really did go wrong... if the stage-managed mayhem, rehearsed violence and practised pratfalls tipped over into real technical failure. The results don’t bear thinking about  and would almost certaimly involve an ambulance being called.

It takes brilliance to control such bedlam – and we feel for each of the cast as they struggle on, sticking to the thespian mantra ‘The show must go on’ – none more so than Chris Bean who plays the exasperated Inspector Carter and for whom the pay is his 'directorial debut'.

Brace yourself, then, to cringe, hide your eyes, flinch and laugh in this hysterical theatrical disaster.

Tim Hughes