Mischief’s Olivier award-winning box office hit, The Play That Goes Wrong, has fast become a global phenomenon with productions across every continent (aside from Antarctica!). Now the West End’s longest running comedy, enjoying its seventh year at the Duchess Theatre, the show returns to Edinburgh on its fourth major UK tour.
We spoke to one of the co-writers, Jonathan Sayer.
How would you describe the show to someone who hasn’t seen The Play The Goes Wrong?
It’s a comedy all about a drama university group who are putting on a play and everything that could possibly go wrong…goes wrong. There's a big cast, there's lots of jokes and it pretty much does what it says on the tin.
Where did you get the idea for The Play That Goes Wrong?
There are three writers so there are a few different answers. I suppose we have all worked in theatre and have experiences of things going awry in shows we have been in. Some of my favourite moments watching theatre has been where things have gone dreadfully wrong and the actors are forced to deal with the mistake and try to keep the show on track.
On top of that a huge influence for us is a man called Michael Green who wrote The Art of Coarse Acting and actually taught one of the writers, Henry Lewis, at youth theatre. Then there's a huge amount of physical comedy which is definitely a nod to Chaplin and Keaton.
How did you create the script?
The three of us were living together at the time in a pretty run down flat in Gunnersbury. We were all working in bars and call centres and restaurants and, in the evenings, we'd come home and we'd write until the early hours. The initial script I think took about a month to put together and we then workshopped the script with the rest of the Mischief team. Everyone's done a lot of improv so we try and take those principles into the writing room and into rehearsal where if someone has an idea you accept it and you build on it.
We all made a pact together a long time ago that if something isn’t funny we'd just say it isn’t funny. I think writing comedy is like plumbing – if a guy comes round to fix your taps and they're still leaking, you say it's still leaking. He won't be upset, it's just a practical thing and I think you've got to try and approach this work in the same way. It's subjective and you've got to have personal distance. As long as you're always scrutinizing in a positive way, that's only going to make the work better.
You can be honest. Are the unfortunate actors depicted based on anyone in real life?
Haha! Nobody is being directly spoofed! The characters were all found in rehearsal and through performing in front of an audience.
That said we’ve all been part of productions that have gone wrong and we’ve all made mistakes on stage (although hopefully nothing as catastrophic as in this play!) so there’s a lot of experience to draw on for finding who the characters are and how they respond to embarrassment.
Some of the events in the play seem like an actor’s worst nightmare! Have you had any feedback from actors themselves?
Lots of actors come up to us at the end of shows, be they professional or amateur, with some fantastic stories of things that have happened to them in different productions. I think the show has quite a cathartic effect for them. But it's not just actors, I think the idea of making a fool of yourself in front of a huge number of people is something that everyone can relate to. Everyone has felt that feeling where they want the ground to open up and swallow them, so they get on side with the characters in the play and they really want them to get to the end of the show!
This show’s journey has been a rags to riches story. Has the success of the show surprised you?
Absolutely. I remember about 10 years ago performing in our improv show and there were more people on stage than there were in the audience so of course it's a surprise! We've been totally blown away by the response. We're so thrilled that people enjoy the work and the characters and that we've been able to make so many different people laugh. The show began in such a small way performing in a 60-seater pub theatre so for it now to be being enjoyed in huge venues all around the world is very humbling and wonderful.
Over 35 countries worldwide have performed a Mischief Production. We went to Budapest and watched a replica of The Play That Goes Wrong where everything was exactly the same other than it was being performed in Hungarian. So many things have been born out of this very tiny thing, and that's amazing.
The Play That Goes Wrong comes to Edinburgh on the 2 - 7 November. Tickets are on sale here.
Mischief will return to Edinburgh next year with the brand-new tour of Magic Goes Wrong, co-created with Penn & Teller - tickets on sale to Friends now, and on General Sale next week here!