From pub theatre to a global franchise, Mischief Theatre has perfected the art of making things go wrong in the right way. With shows in the West End, on tour and Off-Broadway, and a TV show set to air, founders Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields tell Tim Bano how it all came together
Right now there are three Mischief Theatre shows playing in the West End, one on a UK tour, another playing Off-Broadway, one set to open in December, and a six-part TV series set to be broadcast on BBC1. Contrast that with seven years ago, when The Play That Goes Wrong was playing in a cramped room above a pub to an audience of four. For Mischief Theatre something, clearly, has gone very right.
“The whole thing has been a snowball for years and years,” says Henry Shields, one of the three at the heart of the Mischief team, alongside artistic director Henry Lewis and company manager Jonathan Sayer. “The Play That Goes Wrong was always described as a sleeper hit. It bubbled along without a ton of five-star reviews. It’s been a word-of-mouth thing.”
Shields, Sayer and Lewis have been working together for more than a decade, and have collectively written and performed all of Mischief’s shows. There’s also a wider Mischief company of actors who have starred in each production. Over those years they’ve built up a global brand, not only with their ‘Goes Wrong’ shows, but also other polished comedies, bankable hits that have been feeding the humour-hungry crowds in the West End.
While The Play That Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery continue to run in London, recently the company has taken up a year-long residency at London’s Vaudeville Theatre. Peter Pan Goes Wrong is heading off on a festive tour and, at some point, although the trio insist they’ll be the last to know when, The Goes Wrong Show will air on BBC1.
It’s a rare thing in the theatre world: a franchise. Like the Marvel Cinematic Universe in goonish comedy form. They currently are working on the next show to appear at the Vaudeville: Magic Goes Wrong. And the pressures of holding all the various Mischief strands together are starting to take their toll.
In person, the three of them are more muted than the expansive, exaggerated characters they play in their ridiculous comedies on stage. That is probably, in part, to do with the fact that they are completely exhausted.
Sayer says: “Last week, I was in the theatre with these two at 10am. We would write the Magic script until 12.30pm, then meet Kirsty, our director for Groan Ups, while having a sandwich, and go over some thoughts on last night’s show. We’d punch the suggestions into the script, then the cast would arrive at 1pm, we’d go on stage, rehearse the notes in, have a quick break for dinner, then do the show, then respond to emails we’d ignored during the day, then go home.”
Spool back 10 years, and the three of them were at LAMDA, enjoying learning about improvisation so much that they would meet up on the weekends for extra sessions.
Sayer, from Ashton-under-Lyne, had a professional background in performing, having starred as a child actor in Les Misérables and various other shows – “basically if there was a child part, I did it”. Lewis came from Slough, and had taken part in various youth drama clubs.
Shields, on the other hand, initially started training to be a nurse. “I did that for a few months, hated it and went to drama school.” He didn’t apply initially because “my parents didn’t really want to encourage me to be broke for the rest of my life”.
‘We thought The Play That Goes Wrong would be a six-week tour. It ended up being 24 weeks, finishing in the West End, where it’s been playing ever since’
It hasn’t worked out like that. One of the moments when they clocked how successful they’d become was when they were performing on the Royal Variety Show in 2015. They did an extract from The Play That Goes Wrong, which had been running in the West End for just over a year, and at one point Lewis’ character opened a door to reveal Kylie Minogue flirting with Shields’ Inspector.
“There was no rehearsal at all with Kylie,” Shields says. “We did the dress rehearsal in the afternoon, and they said: ‘Kylie will be there’. She arrived 30 seconds before she went on, I confidently strode past her bodyguards and went: ‘Hello, I’m doing this with you, it would be great if you could take my coat off and we’ll do a thing.’ ”
“I didn’t even know that had happened,” says Lewis. “So I opened the door and genuinely didn’t know what would be on the other side. I remember thinking: ‘Oh, it’s Kylie Minogue.’ ”
While still at drama school the group took improvisation shows up to Edinburgh. Their very first show was called Let’s See What Happens, “a very broad, long-form improvised show”, Lewis says. “It was quite loose, and very raw, but I remember some good shows. One member of the company played a pig that crawled across the lap of every single member of the audience. There was also a killer reincorporation of the word ‘raccoon’. So it had its moments.”
At that point, the group was called the Scat Pack. They insist there wasn’t any intentional comedy connotation to the name. “It was meant to be a reference to improvised jazz,” says Lewis. “We but we didn’t use the name for long.” “It was four years,” Sayer corrects him. “Four years.” “We really doubled down on it,” adds Shields.
Lewis still likes the name, but Sayer realised that its “gross connotations” weren’t really sustainable when it came to merchandising. They became Mischief.
From 2009, they made small waves with their show Lights! Camera! Improvise!, which they have now rebranded as Mischief Movie Night, but eventually they decided to write a show with an actual script, inspired by their comedy heroes of old – Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy – as well as classic British sitcoms such as Fawlty Towers.
“We had just finished a tour of Lights! Camera! Improvise!, straight out of drama school, which we’d booked,” says Sayer. “It was fun but very hard to sell. We thought: ‘How can we find something that’s very similar to what we already do, but is more immediately accessible to people who just go to the theatre, rather than people who really love improv?’ ”
The trio were living together and had day jobs working in a bar, a call centre and a Gourmet Burger Kitchen when they started putting together a comedy of mishaps called The Murder Before Christmas. By December 2012 their hour-long piece was staged in the small Old Red Lion theatre pub in Islington to see out the year. As Lewis remembers, conditions were not ideal. “We were the late show, running straight after a Korean show that finished with a big shower of rice at the end. Rice was literally everywhere.”
Sayer adds: “We weren’t even allowed to stick the set to the floor. If you weren’t on stage, you had a spot behind the set that you had to anchor. As soon as you walked off you had to brace against the set.”
The show carried on past Christmas, adopting its new name The Play That Goes Wrong, and in early 2013 transferred to Trafalgar Studios’ downstairs space. The team performed it twice every night during a run that kept getting extended, which is where the first slew of reviews came in.
Then Daily Mail critic Quentin Letts “almost hyperventilated”, Charles Spencer, then at the Daily Telegraph, sniffed a “cult hit in the making” and Lyn Gardner, “not genetically predisposed to this sort of humour”, admitted to laughing out loud several times. It was during this run that producer Kenny Wax slipped in one Sunday afternoon, on the insistence of another producer, Mark Bentley, and was blown away by the audience reaction. “Without putting words into his mouth, he said he’s never experienced an audience around him laughing as hard as they were,” says Shields.
Some tour dates Wax had organised for another show had fallen through, so several venues needed something quickly. He and Bentley asked the trio to write a second act. “We thought it would be six weeks or so,” Lewis explains. “It ended up being a 24-week tour, finishing in the West End where it’s been playing ever since.”
Despite the onstage mayhem, Mischief’s shows are all very carefully choreographed and very tightly performed. The strange paradox is that there’s very little sense anything might actually go wrong. Company member Dave Hearn dislocated his shoulder twice during an Edinburgh run, and during a preview of Groan Ups a hamster that’s supposed to run across the stage got stuck in its track. Disappointingly, that’s about it. What’s striking about the trio is how professional and serious they are about what they do. From initial scripts by Shields, Sayer and Lewis, the company then slowly builds the show in the rehearsal room, devising and improvising gags.
The three of them stick to a self-imposed rule: “We all take credit for everyone else’s good ideas, but we also all take the blame for the bad ones,” says Shields. “It’s a very healthy way of working. So even if one of us came up with a joke in the show, that’s not their joke. We all made the thing that made that joke possible. Equally, if one of us comes up with a bad joke, we all take responsibility for that bad joke.”
Does that dynamic change, though, as success deepens? Many great artists have fallen out over shared credits, I suggest. “I get that Noel Gallagher would be like: ‘I wrote Don’t Look Back in Anger’, but for me it would be: ‘I wrote the joke where the trousers fall down’, which is a weird thing to be egotistical about,” Sayer laughs.
There’s also a rule that each writer and the members of the company are allowed to say if something’s not funny. No one takes it personally, it’s just about getting the job done – and the job, in this case, is to make sure the audience is always laughing.
The company knows each other so well that they can cut bits on the fly and adapt to each other’s mid-show edits if jokes aren’t landing. There are also well-practised contingencies if sets refuse to collapse or things actually do go wrong, formalised into the Bible of Contingencies. The Bible of Contingencies isn’t only for the London production. It’s now been translated into Hungarian, too, a mark of the global reach of Mischief’s brand.
It’s a brand that seemed to spring up almost fully formed. The genius idea of adding ‘Goes Wrong’ to various other shows came quite early on, with its first outing in 2015 for Peter Pan Goes Wrong. There were the posters, too, all visibly part of the same family: white backgrounds, red writing, people in costume. And soon came the marketing gimmicks: adverts printed upside down in newspapers, self-effacing pull quotes and taglines like: “Save money – don’t come” or “Olivier, Tony and Oscar…” in big letters followed by “…all liked the show” underneath. The trio had initially developed this overarching concept on their own. “When we started at Trafalgar Studios we started to talk about identity,” says Sayer. “We decided that the falling off ‘G’ [of the word ‘Wrong’] should be on everything we do, Henry [Shields] used to do all the design work for us and had the white background on the posters, so there was already this understanding of how we wanted to plant ourselves.”
Once Wax came on board, and when JJ Abrams and other producers took the show to Broadway, those marketing techniques became more determined and sophisticated. They’ve got a new logo to tie those strands together, across different countries, different shows, different media. It’s a lot less DIY than it was back then. Shields no longer does the poster designs, for one thing. They spent £300 on the set for the Old Red Lion run – the Broadway production alone cost $4 million.
These days, Mischief is big business. After two TV outings – a filmed broadcast of Peter Pan Goes Wrong for Christmas 2016, and the specially written A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong the following year – they were commissioned for a six-part Goes Wrong comedy series.
Each episode of The Goes Wrong Show is in a different style, from legal drama to horror to Second World War spy thriller. Shields describes them as “plays in a studio”: there is an audience, but they’re not pretending to be in a theatre.
The episodes are done and dusted. Like the rest of us, the trio are waiting to hear about transmission dates. In the meantime, they have a year-long residency at the Vaudeville Theatre. Groan Ups opened there a couple of weeks ago, and it marked a shift for Mischief away from the Goes Wrong motif.
“We’d booked ourselves into this very isolated cottage to try to write this TV show,” says Sayer. “We’d got three episodes done and we had two days left of this retreat, and I had brought my dog with me. The dog was starting to drive Henry [Lewis] into a fit of madness. Also, we’d been locked away only doing Goes Wrong jokes. So we started talking about other ideas.”
Sayer wanted to do something with oversized furniture, while Lewis wanted to delve more deeply into character. On top of that, the three of them had just turned 30, and Sayer had just got engaged. “It got us thinking that we’d all started to do adult things.” Groan Ups is an interesting experiment in how big, physical, slapstick comedy can marry deeper, character comedy.
In December, however, order is unrestored with Magic Goes Wrong, a collaboration with legendary magicians Penn and Teller. “The gestation has been immense,” says Sayer. While performing in London, Penn and Teller saw a matinee of The Play That Goes Wrong and got in touch. “They invited us to come to Vegas for pancakes,” Lewis says.
“It’s not something we really thought would happen,” Sayer adds. “‘Come to Vegas for pancakes’ isn’t something people say, and you don’t expect that there will be any follow-through. But there was.” The pancakes, they tell me, were home-cooked by Teller in a pancake machine and were very good.
Naturally, they’ve been learning “bits and pieces” of magic. And unlike previous Goes Wrong incarnations, the show will actually feature moments where it goes unashamedly right. “It’s a really cool thing. The other Goes Wrong shows are about incompetent people, so it’s nice in this show that you can go: ‘Actually we are competent’ to remind you there’s some really good magic here, before going back to the chaos.”
They’re staying tight-lipped about the third show in the residency. “It’s in the early stages of development so it would be foolish to say what it is. The early stages of Groan Ups were very different from what it is now,” says Shields.
Even if Mischief is dominating the entertainment world at the moment, Shields says that the company itself is in an odd period of transition. “There are a few things that could happen but we aren’t entirely sure what route we’re going to go down.”
They decline to expand, but pushed on whether it’s a choice between different media – more theatre, more TV, or a move into film – Lewis says “we’re keen to do more TV, and we’d love to make a Mischief movie. That’s been a dream for many years and I hope it will come to fruition soon.”
Whatever happens, their golden rule remains the same: it’s got to go wrong in the right way.