Meet the Authors Behind The Play That Goes Wrong

The Play That Goes Wrong comes to The Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts October 31 – November 3. Read on for a special Q&A with the authors behind the show, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields and Henry Lewis.

So, tell me how you guys started this process.

Sayer: It was back in 2012. And myself, Henry (Lewis) and another Henry (Shields) were all living together in West London in a little flat, in Gunnersbury. We were working different day jobs, and we would come home in the evenings and start writing together. So, we wrote this play, called The Play that Goes Wrong, which was a one-act that lasted about 60 minutes. And we performed in this little pub theater called the Old Red Lion.

The Play That Goes Wrong mixes genres… the old English murder mystery with slapstick and farce. The premise is that it’s a college theater production where everything that can go wrong does go wrong! What were your influences?

Shields: We’d been doing improv for so long, it had given us all really good comedic sensibilities. We’ve drawn on a lot of different British influences. I think each of the three of us have a different area of British comedy that we really love. And so, we’ve got lots of silent film stuff. A lot of that comes from John. He has a real obsession with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. But, there’s also a good amount of things like Mr. Bean, which I really love. Actually, the main character that I play, Chris Bean, is named after “Mr. Bean.” And there’s a good bit of “Fawlty Towers” and “Monty Python” in there.

As guys who studied theater and presumably were in collegiate and amateur productions, did you have experiences where things just went disastrously wrong? Or wrong in tiny ways, but memorable ways?

Sayer: Yeah, absolutely. Hopefully never quite as wrong as in the play! I was in “Medea,” when I was at drama school. And the director of this particular production didn’t have a lot faith in me. He said I always played everything for laughs and for jokes. And it was for that reason that I wasn’t given a particularly large part. It seemed too tragic and too serious for my capabilities as a performer. So, I was cast as one of the children. So, obviously, dead. That’s the only time when you see them, when they’re dead. And at the very end of the show, when it came to the part when Medea brings on her children, crying out and shouting out against Jason, we were supposed to lie down, cover ourselves in this fake blood and wait to be pulled on from the wings. And the costumes were all these kind of weird white linen costumes. And I put the blood on my back (I was topless in it), so I just had on these kind of linen shorts and I lied down and I waited to be pulled onto the stage. And Sophie, who was the girl playing Medea, started to pull me. And I could feel the blood that was on my back sticking me to the floor and I could hear her saying, “Oh my children. My son, my son.” And I could feel her really pulling my leg harder and harder and I just wasn’t moving at all. So, I arched my back just a little bit and I got a little giggle, because I was supposed to be dead. And I was pulled over with no pool of blood. But unfortunately, my shorts caught the sticky blood that had been left on the floor of the stage and almost pulled my my pants clean off, in front of an audience of my peers and the rest of the teaching faculty at my drama school. That’s probably the most crazy wrong thing that’s ever happened to me.

From the Old Red Lion, you moved to the Trafalgar Studios in the West End?

Sayer: It’s a little 90 seat theatre. We did 14 shows every week, and during that run we started to garner a bit of positive momentum and some nice cracking reviews. And from there we just kind of snowballed. In the end, that turned into about a 10 week run, and we met our UK producers. There was a tour that was happening in the UK, a big number one tour that had fallen through for various reasons. So, the theaters were looking for a show that could jump into that space and they said, “well look, you’ve got half of the show. You need to have a second act.”

So, you wrote a second act, for the tour?

Lewis: Yeah. The hour long shows we did at the Old Red Lion and Trafalgar, pretty much all of that is still in the show. That is, more or less, all the first half. There’s a new second half. We added a couple of new bits in the first half. So, the story’s just expanded, really.

Did you guys have a wish list of, you know, every actor’s nightmare and kind of try and cram that onto the stage?

Sayer: We wrote down a list of big visual effects that we’d love to find. So, you know, the mezzanine dropping, the truss that flies across, the big plank that splits down and hits the actor in the face, the coal scuttle that explodes… all those things. We had a huge list and slowly we came to an agreement of what’s possible and what’s not. And I think it’s great because, more or less, I think we’ve learnt that most things are possible.

Shields: We learned that the best way to do it is to find one joke and then find ten other jokes that come out of it. Like the clock, for example. We have a big grandfather clock in the show that we use in probably a dozen different jokes. Just that one prop is used over and over again. The hands come off the clock face, people walk into it, people get stuck inside it, we play a scene to the clock. Stuff like that. It’s all about mining, rather than just adding more and more stuff. I think there’s over a thousand jokes in the show, if you include every little laugh. Because we get a laugh at least every six or seven seconds, I believe.

Lewis: I think the response to the show has been pretty much the same all over, which is amazing really. One of the most amazing things about having the show running all over the world, in different productions, is to be able to go and see different people in completely different cultures in completely different countries really laughing and enjoying the show.