The young improvisers who ended up in a scripted West End comedy success

The Duchess Theatre wit its back-to-front title sign

The Duchess Theatre with a back-to-front sign

“I’m not sure it can get much better than this,” Charlie Russell told me yesterday. “We’re all very early on in our careers and to perform in a show where we have artistic input… AND it’s in the West End… AND it’s your best mates… That is good. I’m enjoying it while I’ve got it.”

The Play That Goes Wrong opened at The Duchess Theatre this September and has now had its run extended until at least next September.

Yesterday I chatted to two of its cast members – Charlie Russell and Dave Hearn.

The play began just before Christmas 2012 as a one-act hour-long show at the Old Red Lion in Islington. Last year, it transferred to Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall and played the Edinburgh Fringe, still as a one-act show.

Charlie Russell and Dave Hearn at Duchess Theatre yesterday

Dave Hearn and Charlie Russell at Duchess Theatre yesterday

“Then,” Charlie told me, “when Kenny Wax and Mark Bentley got involved as producers, they wanted to take it on tour, so it needed a second act and an interval.”

The bizarre thing, to my mind, when I saw it last week, was that the second act is even better than the first.

“Who,” I asked, “thought up the title?”

“I did,” said Dave.

“It is brilliant,” I said.

“It was originally called The Murder Before Christmas,” explained Charlie, “because it was a Christmas show at the Old Red Lion. After that, it was going to be called Murder at Haversham Manor.”

The Play That Goes Wrong - does what it says on the label

The Play That Goes Wrong – It does what it says on the label

“But The Play That Went Wrong,” I said, “is utterly brilliant because from the title alone you know the set-up, you know the entire plot and you know it’s a comedy without even being told it’s a comedy. It’s up there with the movie title Snakes On a Plane. The title tells you everything you need to know. You know it’s farce, it’s slapstick, it’s comedy and it’ll be fast-moving – all the stuff that you deliver.”

“This Christmas,” said Dave. “We will have been doing it for two years.”

“My fear,” said Charlie, “is that I might not be able to do real ‘serious’ acting any more. What happens if people give me texts I’m not allowed to change?”

“You’ve also now started doing a monthly show here,” I said. “Lights! Camera! Improvise! which has played at the last five Edinburgh Fringes.”


A boost for the performers and also for improv in general?

“Yes,” said Charlie. “We did the first one here on Monday and then it’s going to be the first Monday of every month.”

“Did you,” I asked, “decide to do that because it gives you a bit of freedom away from the scripted restrictions of The Play That Goes Wrong?”

“We had lots of reasons,” explained Charlie. “It’s really nice to be able to improvise once a month, as well as doing the same show every day. But also our company – Mischief Theatre – is bigger than just this group of people doing The Play That Goes Wrong and they’re all involved in Lights! Camera! Improvise! – It’s a boost for them and also a boost for improv in general; getting it on the bigger stage.”

“It’s always tough to sell improv,” agreed Dave. “How people perceive improv is often quite damaging. So giving it a West End platform and using the success of this show to springboard it is good. But, if I’m being honest, it’s really more for us because we enjoy it and it genuinely is completely different every performance. We will do it once a month and you do feel a sense of freedom – that you can just let loose.”

“Improv,” added Charlie, “was an element of how we created The Play That Goes Wrong, so it does connect to Lights! Camera! Improvise!

All the cast of The Play That Goes Wrong studied, at various times, at LAMDA.

“You must be the crème de la crème of LAMDA,” I said.

“Probably the opposite,” said Charlie. “The reason we did The Play That Goes Wrong was because we were not working. We were the ones who were not successful, so we put on our own show.”

“And then ironically,” I said, “you are the ones who end up with a West End success… Are Americans happy to come and see farce?”

Americans love English people looking stupid

Americans love stupid English people

“They love,” said Dave, “the very quintessentially English nature of it. I think they love English people looking stupid.”

“And Fawlty Towers is big over there,” Charlie pointed out.

“But why a farce?” I asked. “Surely farces are way out of date?”

“The play kind of developed,” said Dave. “We never really thought of it as a farce to start with; we just thought it was a clown show: the idea of a bunch of clowns trying to put on a show and it goes wrong.”

“Literally clowns?” I asked.

“Not circus clowns,” said Dave.

“So like Lecoq?” I asked.

“Well,” Charlie replied, “the teacher who inspired a lot of us at LAMDA and ended up directing the show – Mark Bell – he went to Lecoq.”

“Basically,” I said, “you are all improvisers. “But can you improvise during this show? It’s very finely timed.”

“Well,” said Dave, “one time a table got knocked over by accident and liquid went everywhere, so some of us just slipped on it several times to make a point of that having happened… And, if one audience is really, really going for a particular joke, we can add in more ‘business’ or move on quickly if an audience don’t go for that joke in another show. If you’re not on your toes and somebody else is, you might get left behind, so everyone has to be constantly on the front foot.”

“I heard,” I said, “that the bin which shoots flames genuinely went wrong one night.”

“Yes,” said Dave, “it nearly set fire to one of our understudies. He was covering the part of the actor who is playing the dead man and he accidentally kicked the bucket – literally – and a massive flame shot up. The problem is that, when stuff actually goes wrong, it can be quite difficult because everything is so specifically timed.

“So, when that fire went off, it meant we didn’t have the fire effect when we actually needed it later in the play. We had to improvise around that, which was a lot of fun but it messed with the structure of the play.”

The Play That Goes Wrong

“Sometimes things can go wrong because they go right…”

“If someone forgets a line, we can get around it,” said Charlie, “but sometimes things can go wrong because they go right. If something does not fall when it is meant to, that is not good, because it interferes with the way of doing the gag and getting the laugh.”

“Doesn’t it, as improvisers,” I asked, “get boring doing the same things daily?”

“It’s very personal to each audience,” said Charlie. “Even if nothing were to change from one show to the other, it can’t possibly be the same because it’s comedy and the audience is the variable.”

Dave added: “You get the immediate feedback from the audience. Each show is totally different. Sometimes you get quiet audiences, sometimes loud, sometimes people heckle.”

“Heckle?” I asked, surprised.

“Sometimes,” explained Dave, “they shout out: It’s under the chaise! You know that bit.”

“There’s one point,” said Charlie, “where two characters want to kiss and there’s a line No-one wants to see that – and one night a little boy’s sweet, high-pitched voice in the audience shouted out: Yes we do!

“The physical slapstick and the set is amazing,” I said. “Extraordinary. Was the set added just for the West End production?”

“We toured with it,” said Charlie.

“Surely not with the collapsing floor?” I asked. “It has three positions.”

“Four including its upright position,” said Charlie.

“So could you develop the concept of the show?” I asked. “You could do The TV Play That Goes Wrong.”

Charlie Russell and Dave Hearn - The Play That Goes Wrong trailer

Dave and Charlie in a trailer for The Play That Goes Wrong

“We’ve been talking to TV people about it,” said Charlie, “but one problem is how you could maintain the level of danger.”

“You would have to transmit it live,” I said.

“But even then,” said Charlie, “would it translate on the screen? For a live audience it works well but, if it is performed live but viewed through a screen, it might not be the same.”

“It can’t really be made into a film,” I said, “because it relies totally on being a live performance.”

“The idea I would like to do on film,” said Charlie, “would be something about this group of characters we have created. They have so much back story that the audience don’t see. I’d like to see a fly-on-the-wall of their relationships.”

“Front and back stage like Noises Off?” I said. “Though I have never seen Noises Off.”

“I’ve not seen it either,” said Charlie. “None of us have seen it, though everyone always compares us to it.”

“So,” I asked, “as The Play That Goes Wrong is commercially successful, is there going to be a second?”

Peter Pan Goes Wrong

It’s not just a murder can go wrong, so can a children’s classic

“There already is,” said Dave. “Peter Pan Goes Wrong. We did it last year at the Pleasance Theatre in London and, as of last week, it’s just finished its first opening of tour in Guildford. Then it’s going to Manchester this month and then it’s touring until July next year.”

“Are they all LAMDA people in the cast again?” I asked.

“Quite a few,” said Dave.

“Not exclusively, though,” said Charlie. “There are some Mischief Theatre members in it, but not exclusively.”

Meanwhile the list of celebrities coming backstage after The Play That Goes Wrong is growing – an eclectic mix including Joanna Lumley, Dara Ó Briain, Angus Deayton, Joe Pasquale and JJ Abrams, the film director behind the reboots of Star Trek and Star Wars.

The night I was there, Paul Merton was in the audience.

There is a trailer for The Play That Goes Wrong on YouTube.

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