Menu

The Play That Went Right - Playwright Jonathan Sayer on his smash-hit comedy

Posted on 14 March 2018

Following its sell-out success at the Belgrade Theatre in 2017, Olivier Award-winning comedy sensation The Play That Goes Wrong has been sent back to Coventry by popular demand as part of a brand new UK tour.

From its humble, small-scale origins in Islington’s Old Red Lion pub theatre, Mischief Theatre’s side-splitting farce soon snowballed into an international sensation, enjoying overseas acclaim as well as spawning spin-offs on stage and on screen in the form of Peter Pan Goes Wrong and more recently A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. Now in its fourth year in the West End, it’s also become the longest-running play on Broadway, and has played in 30 different countries around the world.

Ahead of the show’s hotly anticipated return to the Belgrade Theatre from Monday 19 until Saturday 24 March, co-writer Jonathan Sayer discusses some of the secrets to his success…

How would you describe the show to someone who hasn’t seen it?

It’s certainly a play that does what it says on the tin! It’s a comedy about a university drama society who try to mount a performance of an old school murder mystery that goes wrong in more or less every possible way it could. There are 6 actors, a stage manager and a techie who desperately try to get through to the end despite a lot of bad luck. I suppose it’s about people over reaching to achieve something that they are not really capable of reaching – that’s where a lot of the comedy comes from anyway.

Candlesticks

Who are Mischief Theatre?

I act as the Company Director and I run Mischief Theatre with our Artistic Director Henry Lewis. We are an ensemble group of actors and are democratic in the way we operate. Most of us met during a drama foundation course at LAMDA and the company was launched when we took our first improv show to the Edinburgh Fringe.

Where did you get the idea for The Play That Goes Wrong?

There are three writers so we all have slightly different answers. I would say the biggest influences for the show would be Michael Green who wrote the Coarse Acting Plays and who taught one of the writers, Henry Lewis, and a lot of the physical stuff comes from Keaton and Chaplin. A lot of the status play comes from Laurel and Hardy too.

How did you create the script?

We started working on the piece after the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2012 and the first draft took little over a month to complete. We all have slightly different approaches as writers, but we have a mutual passion for it and our background in improv makes a huge difference. We worked as an improv company for years and years and we try to take the ethos of improv into the writing room. It means we can try new things in rehearsal and the script can continually develop. Improv also helps you keep in the moment and that allows us to maintain a sense of danger which is very important with this play.

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.

TPTGW Chaise

You can be honest. Are the unfortunate actors depicted based on anyone in real life?

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.

Some of the events in the play seem like an actor’s worst nightmare! Have you had any feedback from actors themselves?

It’s been interesting how many people have come up to us after a show and have 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! But for the audience too, I think the idea of being embarrassed in front of a huge number of people is something that everyone can relate to whether you’re an actor or not so the jokes land quickly and the play resonates as a whole. 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.

TPTGW Cheers

This show’s journey has been a rags to riches story. Has the success of the show surprised you?

It certainly has been a surprise. I don’t think anyone expected what’s happened with our shows to happen. We’ve always had a lot of confidence and belief in them but if I said I was expecting it I would be lying. We started out in a 60-seat theatre in a London pub so finding out more people wanted to see it, and that it would have a life beyond us being in it, that was incredible.

By the end of 2017, 35 countries worldwide had 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 runs at the Belgrade Theatre from Monday 19 until Saturday 24 March and you can book now.

TPTGW Crew