The Play That Goes Wrong triumphs on the international stage

The Play That Goes Wrong takes on the murder-mystery genre 'because it takes itself so seriously'.
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The Play That Goes Wrong takes on the murder-mystery genre 'because it takes itself so seriously'.

The Play That Goes Wrong is the brainchild of three graduate actors just looking to make people laugh.

What Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields originally created to be performed in a pub theatre has since sky-rocketed to success with productions now being put on all over the world.

The concept: a play about a play in which everything that could go wrong does.

It began life in pub theatre.
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It began life in pub theatre.

The London touring cast are heading to New Zealand this September to show audiences why it earned the title of Best New Comedy at the 2015 Laurence Olivier Awards.

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Stuff talked to Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer to learn a little more about what audiences can expect.

How did the show come about?

Henry: The show began life in a very small and humble way. We wrote it together, myself, Jon and Henry Shields when we lived together in a little flat after we graduated from drama school.

It was just an hour long the first version and we performed in a pub theatre, The Old Red Lion pub in Islington, and it's grown since then. We wrote a full length version and we thought a murder mystery was a funny thing to use, because it takes itself quite seriously and the idea kind of grew from there.

It has just finished its second UK tour, it is touring Australia and there are lots of other big productions around the world. It's been an incredible journey, the whole thing.

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What was the biggest inspiration for the show?

Jonathan: We all have slightly different points of reference. I have always had a huge interest in quite traditional British comedy, but also going back even further to old silent movies. I've got a huge collection of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and all that kind of stuff.

I think what's really cool is that a lot of that stuff, those really big stunts that make people gasp, it all started on stage and then it was kind of transposed onto film so I think it is really cool to take some of those big moments and put them back on a stage. We had a teacher once that told us it was great to make people laugh but to make them gasp is fantastic.

Henry: I worked with Michael Green, an amazing guy who wrote the book The Art of Coarse Acting, which was sort of a guide about how to be a terrible actor and how to survive in an amateur theatre company. It is a lot of funny stories or anecdotes that came out of his time at different amateur theatres. That was the inspiration: I found it really funny, that sort of immediate humour.

The play has received so many awards, including an Olivier award and a Tony. What does that success feel like?

Jon: It's phenomenal. I think the awards are amazing, they are wonderful nights to be part of. The idea that the show is on in so many places and that we are even having this conversation now, I find utterly fantastic. You find people share a sense of humour and to manage to tap into to something that is rather universal, that is really lovely to be a part of.

Henry: It's been absolutely amazing. It has been touring all around the world and making all sorts of people from different countries laugh, that has been absolutely amazing. We are really proud of it because it was a kind of long shot, we didn't know what we were doing at first. We learned by throwing ourselves into it, so it's so nice it has paid off.

Did you write this trying to appeal to different senses of humour around the world?

Jon: I don't think we ever thought 'let's write something that is funny to a lot of different countries'. I don't think that is a possible way to start writing something, definitely not for us. I think we just tried to write something that we all found really funny.

We went with the idea because it was something that would appeal to different age groups, we definitely considered that. I think ultimately we just tried to make ourselves laugh.

One thing that I learnt through this experience is a lot of people say 'people in America laugh at very different things to in England, but I have found that actually a huge amount of stuff is very universal. The fact that the show is running in China, Norway and England, it is the same moments that tend to make people laugh because there is a huge amount of stuff that we share when it comes to a sense of humour.

What's been the best part of the experience?

Henry: Going on the journey with everyone together has been amazing. It is the same cast here, as on Broadway, as it was at the pub, so bringing that sort of family forward with the show [is good].

Jon: My other favourite thing is watching the show. A couple of months ago I left New York and I got to see the UK touring cast, which is the team that is coming out to New Zealand. It is very special just to sit in the audience and sit amongst all the laughter because it is something that we very rarely get to do to watch the work.

The Play That Goes Wrong plays Wellington, Opera House, Sep 27-Oct 1, Christchurch Isaac Theatre Royal, Oct 3-8, Auckland ASB Waterfront Theatre, 11-22 Oct. Tickets at theplaythatgoeswrong.co.nz/tickets

 - Stuff

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