THE Play That Goes Wrong keeps getting it right, an Olivier Award winner from the Mischief makers that has chalked up productions across every continent, aside from being given the cold shoulder by Antarctica.
The West End’s longest-running comedy is spreading chaos and calamity across the Duchess Theatre for a seventh year and the fourth major British tour brings the show back to the Grand Opera House, York, from Tuesday after an earlier run there on tour number three in May 2018.
For those yet to encounter the thrills, spills and comedy mayhem of The Play That Goes Wrong, how would co-writer Jonathan Sayer sum it up? “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,” he says. “There’s a big cast, there’s lots of jokes and it pretty much does what it says on the tin.
“The three writers [artistic director Henry Lewis, company director Sayer and Henry Shields] have all worked in theatre and have experiences of things going awry in shows we’ve been in.
“Some of my favourite moments watching theatre have 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 Michael Green, who wrote The Art Of Coarse Acting and actually taught Henry Lewis at youth theatre. Then there’s a huge amount of physical comedy, which is definitely a nod to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.”
Mischief began in 2008 as a group that specialised in improvised comedy in London and Edinburgh but now creates new comedy for theatre, such as Magic That Goes Wrong, on tour at Leeds Grand Theatre earlier this month, and for television, with the new six-part series of The Goes Wrong Show beginning on BBC One on September 27.
“We created the script for The Play That Goes Wrong when the three of us were living together in a pretty run-down flat in Gunnersbury,” says Jonathan. “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 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.”
From playing to 60 people in pub theatres, Mischief have gone on to take productions to 35 countries, none more successfully than The Play That Goes Wrong.
Back for a second tour of bumps and bruises is Huddersfield actor Gabriel Paul, last seen in York in 2018 playing Trevor, the sound engineer pressed into an emergency role on stage.
“There’s just me from the 2018 tour among the 2021 principals, but all eight of us have been in the principal cast on a previous tour, so we’re like the Avengers being reassembled as they needed people to do it who were already familiar with the challenges involved, all up to speed, because of the Covid situation,” he says.
“It was my agent who first put me up for an audition in November 2017 – when I was really embarrassed because I didn’t know anything about the show at all! – and that process involved a lot of improvisation because the director and writers had devised the show around a lot of improvising.
“Initially I auditioned on my own but I ended up doing five auditions, going down to London from Huddersfield each time. They don’t mess about! They really put you through your paces as they want to see how you work with other actors.”
Teamwork is vital, as Gabriel has found on tour in 2018 and 2021 and in the West End in 2019. “One hundred per cent that’s the case. There’s a certain skill in trying to make things look bad or that they’re going wrong, and you have to really be in tune with your fellow actors because otherwise you could get hurt if things go even more wrong than the title would suggest!” he says.
“Being a physical show, it’s not just the stunts we do, but there are strains you can get, so we do group physiotherapy sessions with Carl Heaton, a sports physiotherapist from Manchester, once a month.”
The fourth tour should have run from December 2020 to April 2021 but after the opening day’s two shows, Lockdown 3 put paid to those dates. Instead, Gabriel and co have been on the road since July 13, relishing a return to playing to audiences.
“We have a saying, because there are 12 characters, we always say the 13th character is Nigel Hook’s award-winning set, but the 14th character is the audience because we do encourage them to participate and even to call out sometimes,” he says.
“It’s the audience’s reaction that I most enjoy about this show; being in a room where you hear people crying with laughter. Hearing that joy all around the country is wonderful.
“I’ve done plays with heavy subject matters and they’re important to do, but it’s great to hear laughter again after the 18 months we’ve had.”
Comedy or tragedy, serious or light, Gabriel has enjoyed myriad stage roles, whether in Northern Broadsides’ Quality Street, The Queen Of Chapeltown at Leeds Playhouse, Bouncers for Esk Valley Theatre or Othello for Demi-paradise Productions.
“I wish I was in that position of being able to choose roles, but that’s not the reality, but I’ve had the chance to work with fantastic people in fantastic shows,” he says. “I like to do something funny or something conversational, like Everything I Own, the Daniel Ward play I did when Hull Truck Theatre reopened in June with a trio of monologues.
“It was about Errol, a man of Jamaican descent, who grew up in Hull and has just lost his father to Covid. He’s organising his father’s house, and it’s a play with universal themes about loss and grief, fathers and sons, family stories and a love of music.”
Now, “having hoped he had done enough never be asked back, Gabriel is contractually obliged to say he’s extremely honoured to be reprising the role of Trevor and getting the chance to go wronger for a little bit longer”, or so his The Play That Goes Wrong biog jokingly says.
The truth is, half way through a tour that runs until the end of November, Gabriel is loving every minute of being in the Wrong place at the right time again.
Mischief present The Play That Goes Wrong, Grand Opera House, York, September 28 to October 3, 7.30pm and 2.30pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.
Copyright of The Press, York