HomeArtsJonathan Sayer & Mischief Theatre interview

Jonathan Sayer & Mischief Theatre interview

The Play That Goes Wrong is a theatrical farce that won rave reviews during its run at The Old Red Lion Theatre. As a result of its successful run, it has transferred to the West End, where it’s run has just been extended until 1st June. It’s by the improvisation-based group Mischief Theatre, whose previous productions include Lights! Camera! Improvise!

The Play That Goes Wrong is their first fully scripted production. We recently spoke to Jonathan Sayer, one of the writers and performers.

He told us about the exciting West End transfer of the show. Along the way we learned where some of the ideas came from, what it’s like playing physical comedy on a long run, and if anything has ever gone wrong that’s not supposed to go wrong!

Jonathan, where did the idea for The Play That Goes Wrong come from?

Its difficult to really say, there’s three writers so we all have a slightly different answers. The biggest influences are the Michael Green Coarse Acting Plays, Lecoq clowning and a lot of the physical stuff comes from Keaton and Chaplin. A lot of the status play comes from Laurel and Hardy too.

We saw the show during its initial run, but for our uninitiated readers, how would you describe it?

Its certainly a play that does what is says on the tin; its about a play that goes wrong in more or less every possible way it could. Its also about the 6 actors, stage manager and techie who desperate try to get through to the end despite a lot of bad luck.

Your company Mischief Theatre is well-known for improvisation. How much of a part did improv play in creating the script?

Our background in improv makes a huge difference. It means we can try new things in rehearsal and the script can continually develop. Improv helps you keep in the moment and that allows us the maintain a sense of danger which is very important with this play.

The Play That Goes Wrong
The Play That Goes Wrong by Mischief Theatre

Tell us how Mischief Theatre came about and who are the main movers and shakers?

The company is run by our Artistic Director Henry Lewis and our Company Director Jonathan Sayer (myself) but we’re certainly democratic in the way we operate. We’ve been together for almost six years now. Most of us met during a year foundation course at LAMDA. The company started when we took our first improv show to the Edinburgh Fringe and we’ve been going back ever since. Up until recently we have been solely an improv company and most of our work has been with our flagship show Lights! Camera! Improvise! The Play that Goes Wrong is the company’s first ever scripted project so its been really exciting.

The Play That Goes Wrong had a successful run at the Old Red Lion Theatre, but has now enjoyed a West End transfer to Trafalgar Studios. That must be very exciting! Tell us how that happened.

Absolutely! Its actually the show’s third run: we presented it last Christmas under a different name (The Murder Before Christmas) and we’ve all just kept working away tweaking the script and making the action tighter. We were offered the chance to take the show to Trafalgar Studios at the end of the Old Red Lion Theatre run and we were thrilled. We had to work very quickly to get it all ready. We had about two weeks to get everything done and we were also touring in Poland during this time. So, it was a little hectic!

What have been the challenges and rewards of playing to audiences at Trafalgar Studios compared to the Old Red Lion?

The configuration of the space is completely different and the challenge has been changing the staging to make sure everyone can see. The great thing is that the capacity is larger so more people get to see the show. It’s great that the audience are on all three sides because it means there’s literally nowhere for the characters to hide. It makes it more painful for the characters and in turn funnier for the audience.

I’m attempting to avoid spoilers, but there are some breathtaking moments in the show where audiences laugh whilst worrying for the safety of the actors. Has anything ever gone wrong wrong?

I wish we had some great stories about injuries and disasters but on the whole it’s been fairly event free (the odd small bruise aside!) The show has been very thoroughly rehearsed and everyone in the cast is very capable physically so it is all very safe. There are a lot of checks and things we run through before every show to make sure everything is where and how it should be. Our stage manager Tom Platt is also very vigilant and safety conscious.

The Play That Goes Wrong
The Play That Goes Wrong at Trafalgar Studios

Playing “deliberately bad” is hard to pull off, but achieved brilliantly in the show. Are the hopeless actors depicted based on anyone you’ve worked with? Feel free to dish the dirt and name names…

Thank you! There’s no one being directly spoofed! The characters are people we have found in rehearsal. But, that said we’ve all been part of productions that have gone wrong and we’ve all made mistakes (although hopefully nothing as catastrophic as in this play!) so there’s a lot of experience to draw on.

There’s a hilarious moment where an actor gives a dud cue condemning his fellow performers to endlessly cycle around the same lines of dialogue. Have you had any feedback from actors on presenting them with their worst nightmare?

Yeah, a fair few people have mentioned that they enjoyed that bit and it’s also come up in a lot of reviews. Its been interesting how many people have come up to us after and told us stories about what happened to them on the stage and moments that have gone wrong. I think the play has brought back a lot of repressed memories for other actors!

How much of a challenge is it to give such committed physical performances over a long run?

I think the biggest challenge is the amount of shows that we are doing. We do fourteen a week, which means at least two a night and some times three in a day. By the last show on Saturday we are rather tired and a little punch drunk. I think this adds to the fun of the show though, we also only have an eight-minute turn around between the two evening shows, so it just becomes another part of the relentless organized chaos.

What are your plans for following the success of The Play That Goes Wrong?

Well we are taking the show to Edinburgh where it will be at the Pleasance Courtyard and we will be doing Lights! Camera! Improvise! at the Underbelly as well. We are also looking at writing something else that goes wrong (although that’s all very secret at the moment!) We love the show so we want to be able to do it as much as possible and for as many people as possible.

The Play That Goes Wrong runs at Trafalgar Studios until 18th May. Tickets can be booked through the ATG Website.

Greg Jameson
Greg Jameson
Book editor, with an interest in cult TV.

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