The Play that Goes Wrong, soon to hit the stage in Hong Kong, is a tour de farce

From a fringe theatre in Islington, to the West End and Broadway, to a Royal Variety performance, this slapstick comedy is going from strength to strength

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2017, 5:00pm

Just before the second act in The Play that Goes Wrong there’s a scene where the cast of hapless actors and crew are stressing because the stage isn’t ready. Then the curtain closes and a minute later opens again on all the cast in (momentarily) perfect organisation.

Most things that go wrong in this farce of a play within a play are, of course, deliberate. But one evening when the production was on its UK tour the “crew member” whose role was to sit on the chaise longue while everyone else was scurrying around decided, instead of the usual book or mobile phone, it would be funny if he brought on a huge punnet of raspberries and ate them.

When the curtain fell and everybody dashed into the wings, he got stuck in the curtain, and the raspberries, the whole huge container of them, went all over the stage.

“He didn’t even drop them!” remembers one of the show’s three creators, Jonathan Sayer, who plays the actor who plays the butler. “Because he was stuck and panicked – I saw it in his eyes – he decided to throw them thinking he’d get rid of them.”

“I remember Jon’s face and him saying ‘Oh no’ and looking at me as the curtain went up,” says his co-writer Henry Lewis. “We had to do the whole second act with raspberries all over the floor and every new person came on stage saw them and didn’t know why they were there.”

“The actors have to fall down a lot during the show and they kept squashing them and got covered in raspberry juice so it looked like a bloodbath in the end. The wardrobe people were furious.”

“They were really slippery too,” Sayer says.

“At the end everyone’s running around with the real farce thing happening, and you couldn’t keep on your feet. There were so many, they were everywhere.”

Fruit salad or not, the play is very, very silly. The premise is that the inexperienced actors of the Cornley University Drama Society are putting on the murder mystery The Murder at Haversham Manor, and are beset by monstrously bad luck as everything that possibly could go awry does.

I didn’t love it, but I was one of the few people in the theatre who didn’t. The man next to me was crying with laughter. “That actor just has to get on stage and I want to collapse,” he whispered. “He’s just like John Cleese.”

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Lewis, Sayer, and their friend Henry Shields all studied at drama school together. Later, sharing a flat and in jobs they found dreary, they’d meet in the evening around the kitchen table and put ideas together, based on their love of clowning and improvisation.

The Play that Goes Wrong started around Christmas five years ago in the tiny Old Red Lion pub fringe theatre in Islington, with a set that involved pretty much a door, window and a fireplace. It was then picked up at the Edinburgh Festival and transferred to the Trafalgar Studios and then to the Duchess Theatre, where it’s still showing.

For the West End they needed to add a second half; and design a bigger set.

“The day the new set arrived and we got to use it was amazing. To go from such a humble set with masking tape to this one was so exciting,” Sayer says.

And it does give rise to some terrific physical gags. “Some reviews have said that the set is like a character in its own right,” Lewis says.

The timing is to the millisecond. It has to be. Behind the scenes are three or four people whose job it is to set the props, and perhaps, most importantly, to make the noises off. “In the wings you will find a big ammunition pile of objects,” Sayer says.

There is the traditional slap stick (the two wooden slats joined so they make a smacking noise when hit against something, which gave “slapstick” comedy its name) but it’s joined by a host of other inventions, with names like “The Thumper Board” or (the very large and very noisy) “Space Snapper” that each have to be banged at precisely the right moment to coincide with a piece of action on stage.

It has been a huge success. Sayer says their lives have become “very surreal” in the past two years, including a Royal Variety Performance in London, “with Kylie Minogue waiting in the wings”.

By the end of this year, the play will have been staged in 35 countries. It has won several comedy awards, and been translated into various languages, including French and Hungarian.

It’s even on Broadway, where Sayer and Lewis were both performing this summer.

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Despite the very Britishness of the piece, they haven’t changed it much from the original West End version, except a few lines – “he’s the spit of” became “the spitting image of” – and they say the US audiences were even more generous than the British ones.

“The show is about being totally humiliated, but the American audiences root for you much more. They want you to be humiliated but not too humiliated.” Lewis says.

They have already written two follow-up plays (Peter Pan goes Wrong and The Comedy about a Bank Robbery) and have started running workshops and writing a new TV show for the BBC, which they can’t talk much about yet. But the process is similar.

“You start with the characters and their objectives and what they are trying to do and you put them together. And then you see what can possibly go wrong,” Lewis says.

The Play that Goes Wrong. Sept 19 to 24, Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Tickets: HK$495, HK$595 and HK$795. Inquiries: 3128 8288