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In 2012, three new graduates from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) co-wrote their first play and staged it at the Old Red Lion pub theatre in north London, playing to an audience of 12 at their first performance.
Four years on, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields are the youngest writers to have had three plays running simultaneously in the West End: The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. What’s more, the trio has performed in all three productions.
Now, they’ve returned to the play that started it all, The Play That Goes Wrong, to perform in a season on Broadway. The West End production is “stumbling through its catastrophic third year” as the tongue-in-cheek marketing puts it, and a touring production is traversing the UK.
Meanwhile, an Australian production, with an Australian cast including Brooke Satchwell and Luke Joslin, has just opened in Melbourne at the start of a national tour.
Winner of the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, The Play That Goes Wrong has certainly gone spectacularly right for its creators. “It’s been a wonderful journey,” agrees Lewis. “The first production cost about £3000 and the Broadway one is costing around $US4 million so it’s quite a scale-up.”
“It has a really special place in our hearts because it’s changed our lives,” adds Sayer. “It’s probably got the highest gag count out of all of our shows. There are these amazing set pieces that work for us, which the audience always loves, so it’s a real joy to perform.”
A farcical play-within-a-play, The Play That Goes Wrong charts the increasingly inept attempts of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society to stage a 1920s murder mystery. Everything that could possibly go wrong goes wrong: the script is dire, lines are fluffed, props are mislaid, entrances are mistimed, scenery tumbles and corpses corpse.
Reviewing the West End production, The New York Times said: “There’s nothing nuanced about The Play That Goes Wrong, a creation of the young and enterprising Mischief Theatre troupe, and that’s a large source of its appeal. It starts off punch-drunk and just keeps getting drunker.”
Lewis, Sayer and Shields founded Mischief Theatre in 2008 shortly after graduating from LAMDA. “We started off as an improvisation company and we had a show called Lights! Camera! Improvise!, which we still do now,” says Sayer. “We toured it to lots of regional theatres and then thought it would be great to do something scripted because improv can be quite hard to sell. So, we thought ‘let’s try and do something written, but which keeps that sense of danger that improv has.’”
From the start, a murder mystery seemed a perfect fit, given its well-known format. “We always say that for it to be really funny when it goes wrong, you have to know what it should have been if it had gone right. Because of shows like The Mousetrap, it’s ingrained in people’s psyche exactly how those murder mysteries work,” says Sayer.
As for the comic style of the piece, their inspirations include Michael Green’s classic humorous 1964 book The Art of Coarse Acting as well as comedians Morecombe and Wise, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
Directed by Mark Bell, who incidentally taught them physical theatre at LAMDA, the resulting play began life at the tiny Old Red Lion as a one-hour, one-act piece called The Murder Before Christmas. After transferring to the Trafalgar Studios in 2013, producers Kenny Wax and Mark Bentley said they’d like to tour it if the Mischief makers could turn it into a two-act play. The revised show went on to tour the UK in 2013 and hurtled into the West End in 2014.
Along the way, it was renamed when the original title proved misleading. “On the face of it, it just looked like a normal murder mystery. I think we even had a few people who turned up who didn’t realise that the play was meant to be going wrong and left confused,” says Sayer. “So, we thought we’d make it as simple as we could so that people would understand what it is. The title has been really good for the show. You’re in on the joke before you arrive. You know exactly what it is you’re seeing.”
The Play That Goes Wrong comes unstuck at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne until March 26 and then tours to Adelaide, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth until June 11