Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields are the stars and co-writers of The Play That Goes Wrong.
The trio are members of improvised theatre company Mischief Theatre who originally staged The Play That Goes Wrong at the Old Red Lion – a fringe theatre in Angel – two years ago.
Following its premiere the piece transferred to Trafalgar Studios 2 and then to Edinburgh. Following sell out and critically acclaimed runs, The Play That Goes Wrong launched a UK Tour before transferring to the West End’s Duchess Theatre where it recouped twelve weeks into its now-extended season. Countless international productions are already planned, including a possible Broadway transfer.
The Play That Goes Wrong has been nominated for Best New Comedy at this year’s Olivier Awards. Mischief Theatre have also brought their improv show ‘Lights! Camera! Improvise!’ to the West End, performing to sold out crowds once a month, and their new stage show Peter Pan Goes Wrong recently launched its UK Tour.
Summed up perfectly by its title, The Play That Goes Wrong follows the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s disastrous attempt to put on a 1920's murder mystery.
I recently sat down with Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields in their West End dressing room to discuss The Play That Goes Wrong’s incredible journey to the West End, how the piece has developed and what extreme audience reactions they have experienced. We also talked about getting stuck in dog flaps, performing impro in a cupboard in Poland and much, much more…
Two years ago I received an email inviting me to press night of The Play Goes Wrong at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Camden… and now here we are sat in your West End dressing room! What is it like to look back at the last two years? Have you had the chance to take it all in?
Jonathan Sayer: I sent you that email! It’s all happened incredibly quickly, and I think things are still happening incredibly quickly so no, there isn’t really the chance to breathe and take it in. People say, “you’ve taken it in your stride” but I don’t think we have, it’s just happened so quickly and we’ve gone along with it.
Henry Shields: We’ve just got used to not knowing what’s going on and just being like, ‘oh the next thing’s happened’. We’re used to not knowing where we are.
JS: Really we’re just doing the same thing, we’re just doing the same show and it has been so much fun to continue working on the same show over such a long period of time, making it better and improving it. It’s great!
Back when you first created it what were your original intensions? Wasn’t it more of a Christmas show?
Henry Lewis: Yes, it started off as a Christmas show. We never really had long term goals with it. We were an improv company for a long time and really wanted to do something scripted in London and we had this idea so thought ‘let’s do it’. We just wanted to put it on at the kind of theatres we had been working at – more fringe venues. So we started at the Old Red Lion and then the opportunities grew from there. We were delighted to be able to take it to Trafalgar Studios and then to Edinburgh – going to The Pleasance was a huge deal for us at the time. At the beginning we were never trying to get it on in a West End theatre, it just sort of happened.
Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer & Henry Lewis in The Play That Goes Wrong
When did you first realise transferring to the West End was a possibility?
HL: When we were taking it on tour we knew that the West End guys were coming to see it and that there was a possibility that if they liked it, it could transfer. Initially we thought that if it came into the West End it would just be a filler show for the summer with a six or eight week run. We thought that would be a brilliant way to end the tour, but actually they really liked it and thought it could run for a long time so offered us this theatre starting from September, which is a lovely time of year to start in the West End because it’s around for Christmas and everything. We were thrilled to be offered that and thrilled to have extended. It has been a really fun journey!
HS: When it started it was only forty-five minutes long and then we did about ten or fifteen minutes of improv at the end with the audience. At that point we didn’t think it would go anywhere big [laughs], it was just a fun thing to be doing. It was such a short, silly show.
What I love about The Play That Goes Wrong is that it is so accessible – you don’t have to work in theatre to find it funny, you could have just been to watch a school play or been in an amateur show as a child. How many real life personal experiences have made it into the piece?
JS: Absolutely, it’s a lot of fun to write this kind of stuff. I don’t think we’ve ever had quite a disastrous experience in real-life onstage [all laugh], because I think we would have packed up and gone home, but there are definitely little things we’ve talked about and moments which have come from real things which have happened. Obviously we then expand on that.
HS: There’s a bit with the phone where the phone can’t get across the stage… the first time that ever happened it was a genuine mistake. The phone wasn’t supposed to be attached to the table, it was supposed to be taken all the way across to his ear but it was our first night of the tour in Canterbury and someone had glued the phone to the table so we kind of just made up on the spot what is now in the show. We honed it a bit and made it a bit tighter, but it was good enough to keep. Sometimes stuff just happens, things go wrong and then it makes it into the show.
JS: On our very first night it was just supposed to be a straight murder mystery [all laugh].
HL: There’s a bit in Peter Pan Goes Wrong (another Mischief Theatre show which is currently touring) which is based on one of my true life experiences. In the show one of the characters plays the dog and gets stuck in the dog flap… and we put that in because I got stuck in a dog flap once. I was about fifteen and had forgotten my keys and gotten locked out of my house. My parents weren’t coming home for about three or four hours and it was raining so I thought I would try and get in through the dog flap. I had got in to my house through the dog flap previously, but that was when I was much, much younger. I was obviously a bit larger; I got my shoulders through but couldn’t get my hips through or my shoulders back out all the way so I was then stuck half in and half out the door. My arse was soaking wet in the rain while my front half was dry…
HS: And what happened after that? Didn’t your mum come home?
HL: Well I had a stick, a reaching kind of stick which I used to hook the phone down. I had the stick with me before I tried to get through because I thought it might be useful… I had kind of planned it [all laugh]. Fortunately I was able to phone my mum, she was literally three hours away so couldn’t get back. I was waiting there for a long time, it was very painful! It was really digging into my stomach! She eventually got home and it wasn’t until that point that I realised her coming home wasn’t the solution because all she could do was unlock the door that I was stuck in. She had to get her boyfriend at the time to come round and saw me out… it was terrifying because it was a real blade and it came quite close! So we had to replace the whole door… it was disastrous! My mum was furious!
HL: [laughs] Absolutely!
JS: I had an experience playing a dead body which went wrong… we all went to LAMDA and in our second year we did a Greek tragedy and the director didn’t have a lot of faith in me at all. He said I played everything for laughs and generally just said I wasn’t a very good actor… I was just like ‘ok, it’s a shame that you think that’. So in Medea I was cast as the child, and the child’s only part is to be brought on dead at the end while Medea cries over him. I don’t know why, but we all had these stupid white linen costumes. I was in the wing space and they wanted me to come on covered in blood. I wasn’t wearing a t-shirt so covered my top half in blood and then I lay down and had to be brought on… and this was the first time you really performed in front of all your friends and all your teachers at drama school. As Medea started to drag me on, my back stuck to the floor because the blood was just like cold syrup. I just wasn’t moving anywhere and I could hear Medea just saying the same line over and over again while she was desperately pulling me, I think people were slightly sniggering in the audience. I decided to help her a little bit so ever so slightly lifted my back up. But what happened [laughs] was that the blood stayed in a little pool on the floor which my trousers got stuck in. So, like a glove being pulled from my hand, my trousers just started to pull away with my boxer shorts as well and I think you could just about see the top half of the bit you don’t want all your teachers and friends to see! So Medea’s dead son had to quickly pull his trousers up and everyone erupted into laughter – and that was my first ever show at drama school.
HS: We haven’t put that bit in the play [all laugh]!
HL: No we haven’t crowbarred in a bloody corpse scene!
After watching the show I was exhausted from laughing so much, how do you all feel when you come off? How do you survive eights shows a week?
HS: I think you get used to doing the moves, so personally I find that physically it’s not that tiring. Your body gets used to it. The problem I have is with my voice because I have to do so much shouting in the show. Usually by the end of the week I start to lose it, so don’t come and see the last show on a Sunday [laughs] because I’m just coughing the whole way through!
HL: It is a physical show and it is tiring to do but you get up to speed with it. Whenever we have breaks, like between finishing the tour and opening in the West End, we come back and find it really, really tiring. I think you lose your match fitness. Once you’re in the routine of it, it’s fine. You get the occasional bump or bruise.
"People have got behind the show, it’s captured their imaginations and it’s amazing to have that kind of support." Jonathan Sayer
Obviously it has changed and evolved so much, but is it ever hard to keep things fresh?
JS: The difference between doing this and doing a play you have to audition for is that this is ours. With ownership comes a very different feeling and keeping it fresh isn’t so much of a problem because it’s the play we all made that started in a room above a pub that we wanted to create. There is still a real uniqueness to it. And, like you said, it’s not so long ago that we first wrote to you and asked you to come and see our show. The whole of the second act is brand new and we’re still changing things and working on things, a few new jokes are found every now and again.
HL: And you get so much back from the audience too which really changes it. That keeps it fresh.
You must get some extreme audience reactions?
HL: Yes we do get people shouting stuff out occasionally. Sometimes people get a little too involved [laughs].
JS: There was a man who just kept shouting at me! Sometimes you get a brilliant audience response which I like to think is testament to the acting in the show, we are selling the idea that we are so low status that people feel they can just shout at us. Maybe it’s because they have no respect for us, I don’t know [laughs].
HS: Someone shouted “jump” while I was on the upper level once!
HL: It keeps it interesting!
Do things ever actually go wrong?
HS: It doesn’t happen very often, but one of the worst things that happens is when the big flats don’t fall at the end. Sometimes a rope will get caught or a few of them just won’t go. We all react because we’re expecting them to fall but then if they don’t we are left looking a bit funny.
JS: On the whole it has to be a pretty tight ship!
HL: It has to be quite precise in order to work, but the occasional thing does happen. I think the upper level has failed a couple of times too.
What’s the whole atmosphere like back here amongst the cast?
JS: We all hate each other! [laughs] No, it’s good!
HS: We’ve all been working together for about six or seven years so we’ve gotten used to each other. Occasionally tempers flare or little things happen but we’ve got to the point where we know how to deal with each other, kind of like a family.
The cast of The Play That Goes Wrong
HL: I think that’s a big part of what’s made the show. We knew each other very well so I think we’re able to work together effectively. Sometimes things feel a bit weird when you’ve been doing them for a while but we’re always shooting ideas and can change things slightly. I would say there’s a really supportive vibe.
I love that you have also brought improv evenings to the West End! They’ve been selling out, have they been fun to do?
HS: They’ve gone down great actually. We’ve been doing impro for years and years, it’s always been our bread and butter. We don’t get to do it as much as we’d like to, there was a time when we’d do it every week somewhere in London and we were honoured to do Edinburgh every year. Unfortunately we don’t get to do it as much anymore, so getting to do the monthly shows here is great! It’s an output of creative fun and gives us the chance to let our hair down a bit! People seem to like them which is also a bonus [laughs].
JS: It’s dangerous to talk to us about improv because it’s almost a bit of a weird religion [laughs]. It’s really cool to do an impro show to 500 people because we care so much about impro and it’s brilliant to do something mainstream and not just fringe! We’ve done it in some weird and wonderful places…
HS: …shop windows, buses…
HL: … a cupboard in Poland – that was weird! We’ve been doing it for a long time and have been all over!
Oh my goodness – a cupboard in Poland?!
HL: [laughs] We went over to do a show as part of the Polish Improv Festival… but they didn’t like us [all laugh]. Everyone was performing in groups of fours and everyone was given their own little space around the theatre to perform in. Some people were in dressing rooms, one group were on the stage, some people were in the function rooms, in the kitchen… and we were put in a cupboard probably about the size of this little dressing room we’re in now which was behind the stage and usually used for storage, it was tiny. Then a handful of people at a time shuffled in to watch – it was really fun!
JS: But from doing all the weird and wonderful environments, it’s nice to be doing it in a less weird more wonderful environment now.
Looking ahead, Peter Pan Goes Wrong has also been very successful, what else have you got up your sleeves?
HL: Well we’re writing a new stage show which we’re hopefully looking at touring, this show is hopefully going over to America later in the year and hopefully Peter Pan will come into London at some stage. We’re looking at a few other TV projects as well and a film project. There are also lots of international productions of The Play That Goes Wrong, one is opening in France this summer and there is a Hungarian production in the pipeline… and Israel, Italy, Australia…
How involved will you be with those?
HL: Well it depends, in terms of the American one it would be us going over and doing it.
JS: The Hungarian one will be a replica production...
HL: They’ll be using elements of the set and stuff, we’ll have some input in that.
Will you go over and see them?
HS: Yes, we’re going to see the French one.
HL: It’s in May, but we’ve had less to do with that one because they’ve just translated the script themselves.
How does it feel to officially be Olivier Award nominees?
HL: Well I mean we’re hugely thrilled! We’re honoured! We’re not sure what will happen, the other two shows in the category are fantastic, but we’re delighted to be nominated.
Well regardless of what happens it will be a fun evening!
JS: Absolutely, it’s really exciting to be in that company! We’ve talked about everything happening so quickly, so it’s nice to have landmarks - it’s a nice barometer to show the distance that we have come.
There’s a lot of support behind the show, the public voted for you to win the WhatsOnStage Best New Comedy Award last year. It must be nice to know you have so much support behind you?
JS: It’s amazing! And it’s lovely to be nominated for awards because obviously it’s a nice thing, but it’s even nicer that the show is always sold out – there are always people in! People write emails and letters about how much they enjoyed the show and it’s magic! It’s really nice that people come and have a good time. That’s the best thing! People have got behind the show, it’s captured their imaginations and it’s amazing to have that kind of support.
Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)
The Play That Goes Wrong is currently booking at the Duchess Theatre until Saturday 5th September 2015. Please visit www.theplaythatgoeswrong.com for information and tickets.
Photo Credit: Alastair Muir