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Opening night – The Comedy About a Bank Robbery at the Criterion Theatre, London

Scene from The Comedy About A Bank Robbery. Photo: Tristram Kenton Scene from The Comedy About A Bank Robbery. Photo: Tristram Kenton

As The Comedy About a Bank Robbery opens at the Criterion Theatre in the West End, Matthew Hemley meets the writers and producers to talk about mishaps, accidents and the pressure of following The Play That Goes Wrong.

Henry Shields – performer and writer

Henry Shields in The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Henry Shields in The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. Photo: Tristram Kenton

How hard was it to follow Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Play That Goes Wrong?

We started writing Bank Robbery about two years ago – it’s been a heavy slog while doing Peter Pan and The Play That Goes Wrong and it’s nice to come out the other side. We are always trying to do bigger things, and I don’t know what we will do to top this one. When we did Peter Pan we had this feeling we could do another ’Goes Wrong’ show and that would be the easy next step – maybe the Goes Wrong Musical, which people keep telling us to do and one day we will – but we thought we would try something radically different. We wanted to see if we have it in us to be more than one premise, to be real writers who do all kinds of things. We thought we would take the braver option of doing something different and having a go.

There is so much physical comedy in the show, and much that revolves around stunts that require a lot of aerial skills. How do you come up with that?

Part of that comes from having a really good designer, David Farley, who from day one we did storyboard workshops with and drew designs of different things. We had to map out every single moment before we even got to a rehearsal room, so the detail and pre-planning that went into it was immense.

How has the play changed in its previews?

For the last three weeks, we have changed a lot. The first 10 minutes is completely new – that went in about a week ago. The previous beginning didn’t work and we found that with an audience. That is the kind of thing you would normally discover with a run at a smaller theatre. But we had to do it on the go with this, changing while doing shows every day. It was a huge amount of pressure and the cast has done amazing work performing every day at the same time as rehearsing new cuts, new changes and new scenes.

Kenny Wax – producer

Kenny Wax. Photo: Stephanie Methven
Kenny Wax. Photo: Stephanie Methven

Was it a risk bringing a new comedy direct to the West End without a trial run out of town?

I knew the risk but I was aware of it and so we gave the cast six weeks rehearsal and a four-week workshop reading prior to that rehearsal period, plus three weeks previews. It’s been put together well and hopefully tonight we saw the results of it.

There are a lot of stunts that could go wrong. That must worry a producer…

It’s challenging and there are lots of stunts. Normally you get actors complaining to the writers and director, but as they write it for themselves there is no one they can turn to. It is challenging but it’s their own fault, so to speak. It takes their comedy a couple of steps further and I am sure there is more to come from them in the future.

They have made a few tweaks in the previews, haven’t they?

They had the balls to cut the first three scenes of the show – we played them about a week and our comments generally from people were that it was a little slow to start. But instead of tinkering they cut all three and replaced it with a scene in a prison cell with double entendres that says to the audience: “You are going to have a good time, relax.” What we were originally trying to do was something more clever, but it didn’t grab the audience as quickly. [The writers’] intuition to know that wasn’t working was incredible. They film the show each night, and watch it back afterwards; the next day they start cutting again and changing – it’s honed and honed and honed.

Jonathan Sayer – writer and performer

Jonathan Sayer in The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Jonathan Sayer in The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. Photo: Tristram Kenton

This is quite different from your other shows, isn’t it?

We have a quiet deal between us that every production we do, we try to push the envelope a little bit further and make the health and safety officers a little bit more grey and bald – and try to get a few more gasps as well as laughs. There are a few more danger moments.

What have you had to do to prepare for the physical elements?

I must admit I have had to do a bit of work for some of the stunts. It’s exhausting, and I have done a lot of gym work and been staying healthy and getting used to bruises at the moment. I have had two concussions now in rehearsal and been to A&E twice. I cut my head open and had water retention on my elbow – all kinds of crazy injuries.

Your other shows played elsewhere before coming to the West End. Did you feel pressure opening this one directly at the Criterion?

Usually we have a big fringe experience, where we are there four months and go on tour and you get a year’s gestation before hitting the West End, whereas with this it’s immediate and all that process has been fitted into three weeks. But Michael Frayn said he is still redrafting Noises Off. Hopefully it’s never done, the refines and tweaks get smaller but I really don’t believe in the idea a project is locked down. That scares me a little bit – you still want it to breathe and change and find its feet.

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