The BBC’s latest comedy series The Goes Wrong Show, based on a hit West End play, kicks off with a special festive episode. Georgia Humphreys finds out more from writers and stars Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields.
If you’re a theatre fan, chances are you’ll have seen The Play That Goes Wrong.
The slapstick comedy, from the Mischief Theatre company, was first staged in front of a handful of people at London’s Old Red Lion pub in 2012.
It became a word-of-mouth hit and moved to the West End, where it still remains today, and a version (co-produced by Star Wars filmmaker JJ Abrams) even made it to Broadway.
There have been one-off TV specials from the team before; now they’re making a triumphant return to our screens with hilarious six-part series The Goes Wrong Show, which was filmed in front of a live studio audience.
Based on The Play That Goes Wrong, each episode uses their unique brand of physical theatre to depict an overly ambitious endeavour from The Cornley Drama Society (who really are a hopeless group of actors…).
Here, writers and stars Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis and Henry Shields – who founded Mischief Theatre as students – tell us everything we need to know.
The first episode is a festive treat; called The Spirit Of Christmas, it sees Santa come to town with his elves to solve a little girl’s Christmas woes.
Subsequent theatrical catastrophes include gripping courtroom drama A Trial To Watch and Second World War spy thriller The Pilot.
The writing team decided to use the same characters developed over the years in their stage shows, such as prolific over-actor Robert Grove, screen-hogging Sandra Wilkinson and artistically mistrusted Dennis Tyde.
“We’ve grown up with them; literally from the start of our careers and drama school, we’ve played those characters,” explains Sayer. “So we always knew we were going to be those people.
“Although we don’t get to explore the characters’ narratives so much, you do get to explore their dynamic and the status playing between them.”
“What we’ve tried to do is create a hybrid between theatre and TV,” he follows.
“There are some jokes in there that you can only do with a camera. We thought that was really important.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
Sayer recalls how the trio went on a writing retreat at the start of the process – something they’d never done before.
“We went to a very, very remote little cottage for two-and-a-half weeks, and left early because it was too remote for us to handle,” he quips.
“We did three days of trying to make it all be set on a farm. And then we said, ‘Oh, I hate this’.”
He laughs, later adding: “And then we said, ‘Let’s write what we really want to write, make it as crazy as we can and then see where it goes from there’.”
Ultimately, they settled on doing six completely different stories “which had an enormous amount of challenges – a new set every episode and all the rest of it”, notes Lewis.
“But I think it was really worth it, because it gives us so much different, physical stuff to play with.”
As you’d imagine, this form of theatre can be incredibly demanding for the actors involved.
There were a few instances when they did have to use stunt doubles, even though “we try to do everything ourselves”, says Shields.
“We’re all pretty reckless with our bodies, but it always comes down to the health and safety things and, if we really aren’t allowed, then the stunt people come in. We had a really great stunt team.”
Shields describes one dangerous-sounding skit a cast member managed to do themselves.
“There’s a scene where Bryony [Corrigan, who plays Vanessa] falls off a running machine and gets thrown backwards into some weights – and Bry did that!”
It may be a series about things not going to plan, but when things accidentally go wrong during filming, “it’s never as funny as you think it might be”, suggests Sayer.
“If something goes wrong, the play goes right, so we’ll just have a scene where nothing happens!
“Luckily it’s different to the way it works in theatre. In theatre, you have a boring scene and you go, ‘Oh, that’s a shame’. But in TV, thankfully, we can stop and go back.”
Sayer, Lewis and Shields were recent Lamda graduates, in minimum wage jobs by day and performing at night, when The Play That Goes Wrong was first performed.
They’ve had a meteoric rise to success – 2019 has seen a year-long residency at the Vaudeville Theatre in London, meaning they had productions occupying three separate theatres at the same time – which they are obviously delighted about.
This TV project will probably raise their profiles even further. But there’s undoubtedly an element of pressure that comes with being on the box over the festive period.
Do they accept that there might be viewers tuning in who don’t realise the concept, and will think they’re just watching a really bad amateur dramatic production?
“I think there’s always a risk that someone will think it has genuinely gone wrong,” admits Lewis.
“We had that, particularly at the very beginning when we were first doing The Play That Goes Wrong in its very first iteration at The Old Red Lion.
“It wasn’t called The Play That Goes Wrong, it was called The Murder Before Christmas, which was the title of the play within the play. So it didn’t have that clue. We have learned from that. We thought, ‘We should probably tell them what’s happening’.
“They were really baffled and couldn’t believe that it had been such a disaster. They shuffled out into the world just believing that we were insane.”
The Goes Wrong Show first airs on BBC One on Monday December 23, then every Friday from January 3.