Interview: Jonathan Sayer – The Play That Goes Wrong

Nusrat Ghani

It’s currently on its fourth major UK tour – and about to hit the stage at the Assembly Hall from October 19-24. Its co-writer Jonathan Sayer reveals more on the runaway success of this slapstick comedy

How would you describe the show to someone who hasn’t seen it?

It’s a comedy all about a drama university group who are putting on a play and everything that could possibly go wrong does! There’s a big cast, there’s lots of jokes and it pretty much does what it says on the tin.

Who are Mischief Theatre?

We started off in 2008 as a group who specialised in improvised comedy but now we create new comedy for theatre and television. We began performing in Edinburgh and London and are now bringing our work to lots of different places all over the world!

Where did you get the idea for The Play That Goes Wrong?

There are three writers so there are a few different answers. I suppose we have all worked in theatre and have experiences of things going awry in shows we have been in. Some of my favourite moments watching theatre has been where things have gone dreadfully wrong and the actors are forced to deal with the mistake and try to keep the show on track.

How did you create the script?

The three of us were living together at the time in a pretty run down flat in Gunnersbury. We were all working in bars and call centres and restaurants and, in the evenings, we’d come home and we’d write until the early hours. The initial script I think took about a month to put together and we then workshopped the script with the rest of the Mischief team. Everyone’s done a lot of improv so we try and take those principles into the writing room and into rehearsal where if someone has an idea you accept it and you build on it.

How do you define funny?

We all made a pact together a long time ago that if something isn’t funny we’d just say it isn’t funny. I think writing comedy is like plumbing – if a guy comes round to fix your taps and they’re still leaking, you say it’s still leaking. He won’t be upset, it’s just a practical thing and I think you’ve got to try and approach this work in the same way. It’s subjective and you’ve got to have personal distance. As long as you’re always scrutinising in a positive way, that’s only going to make the work better.

You can be honest: Are the unfortunate actors depicted based on anyone in real life?

Ha ha! Nobody is being directly spoofed! The characters were all found in rehearsal and through performing in front of an audience. That said we’ve all been part of productions that have gone wrong and we’ve all made mistakes on stage (although hopefully nothing as catastrophic as in this play!) There’s a lot of experience to draw on for finding who the characters are and how they respond to embarrassment. Some of the events in the play seem like an actor’s worst nightmare!

Have you had any feedback from actors themselves?

Lots of actors come up to us at the end of shows, be they professional or amateur, with some fantastic stories of things that have happened to them in different productions. I think the show has quite a cathartic effect for them. But it’s not just actors, I think the idea of making a fool of yourself in front of a huge number of people is something that everyone can relate to. Everyone has felt that feeling where they want the ground to open up and swallow them, so they get on side with the characters in the play and they really want them to get to the end of the show!

This show’s journey has been a rags to riches story. Has the success of the show surprised you?

Absolutely. I remember about 10 years ago performing in our improv show and there were more people on stage than there were in the audience so of course it’s a surprise! We’ve been totally blown away by the response. We’re so thrilled that people enjoy the work and the characters and that we’ve been able to make so many different people laugh. The show began in such a small way performing in a 60-seater pub theatre so for it now to be being enjoyed in huge venues all around the world is very humbling and wonderful.

Any special memories from creating this piece of theatrical history?

Over 35 countries worldwide have performed a Mischief Production. We went to Budapest and watched a replica of The Play That Goes Wrong where everything was exactly the same other than it was being performed in Hungarian. So many things have been borne out of this very tiny thing, and that’s amazing.


Share this article

Recommended articles


Please enter a search term below.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter