Pratfalls, slapstick and the underrated art of physical comedy as Play That Goes Wrong comes to Norwich

Everything that can go wrong does for the accident-prone thespians as The Play That Goes Wrong comes

Everything that can go wrong does for the accident-prone thespians as The Play That Goes Wrong comes to Norwich Theatre Royal. Picture: Helen Murray - Credit: Archant

Everything that can go awry does in Play That Goes Wrong as accident-prone thespians see their masterpiece fall apart. Actor Patrick Warner tells us about slapstick, British humour and why we all love to see people make fools of themselves.

Everything that can go wrong does for the accident-prone thespians as The Play That Goes Wrong comes

Everything that can go wrong does for the accident-prone thespians as The Play That Goes Wrong comes to Norwich Theatre Royal. Picture: Helen Murray - Credit: Archant

The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is bringing their show to Norwich Theatre Royal – and it's fairly certain that things won't go as planned for the accident-prone thespians.

Olivier Award-winning show The Play That Goes Wrong mixes Fawlty Towers and Noises Off as it tells how the fictional drama group attempt to put on a murder mystery, only for it to become a battle against all the odds to get to their final curtain call.

Co-written by Mischief Theatre company members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, the show mixes physical comedy packed with finely-tuned farce and Buster Keaton inspired slapstick, delivered with split-second timing and ambitious daring.


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Does the title The Play That Goes Wrong sum up what the show's about?

The premise is that Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society are putting on a very creaky old 1920s murder mystery that they intend to be their greatest success to date. It is set on the opening night of this production during which everything begins to fall apart. I play the show's director Chris Bean who has also casts himself in what he would consider to be the main character, but who spends the entire evening in agony as he watches his intended masterpiece crumble around him.

Everything that can go wrong does for the accident-prone thespians as The Play That Goes Wrong comes

Everything that can go wrong does for the accident-prone thespians as The Play That Goes Wrong comes to Norwich Theatre Royal. Picture: Helen Murray - Credit: Archant

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Does a lot of the show's humour come from physical comedy?

There is a lot of physical comedy, a lot of slapstick Buster Keaton inspired elements and a lot from the history of British farce. It's sort of a clown show really. The writers and I were at drama school at the same time and studied under the same clown teacher so one of the fundamental principles of the show is that every decision that one of the characters makes in order to solve a problem should always make the problem worse. That means that the whole thing just spirals. It is basically a group of idiots trying desperately to reassert control of this thing as it falls apart.

Is slapstick an underrated art?

I think so. It involves very precise timing and that is very much an art to master. And how you want your audience to react to it is very important. One of the things about this show is that rather than asking the audience to laugh with the actors you are asked to laugh at them and their character's discomfort and the things that befall them. So we try to elicit a few gasps and groans as well as laughs.

Everything that can go wrong does for the accident-prone thespians as The Play That Goes Wrong comes

Everything that can go wrong does for the accident-prone thespians as The Play That Goes Wrong comes to Norwich Theatre Royal. Picture: Helen Murray - Credit: Archant

Does physical comedy bring an element of danger?

We do everything safely but it is often the most innocuous things that end up being a problem. We have just welcomed a new cast member because Ed Judge who had the most complex role in the show, with all these slightly lethal looking things to perform, last week fell over while passing me a prop and broke his wrist. It is bizarre, you can rehearse all the complex physical stuff to within an inch and then it is the smallest things that catch you out.

With the physical routines so well timed is there still room for improvisation?

It's a little of both. The rehearsal process took the form of half of our time improvising as clowns and working out how the characters would respond on stage, then the other half very precisely drilling the more technical elements. So it is a curious blend of complete precision and freedom. In that sense it is like nothing I've ever worked on before.

Everything that can go wrong does for the accident-prone thespians as The Play That Goes Wrong comes

Everything that can go wrong does for the accident-prone thespians as The Play That Goes Wrong comes to Norwich Theatre Royal. Picture: Helen Murray - Credit: Archant

Is the humour very British?

Fawlty Towers gets mentioned an awful lot by people who have seen the show. People come and say did you base your character on Basil Fawlty. It's not but there is this figure in British comedy: the very august, pompous and furious idiot. The show features many of those tropes from these British comedy figures that you will recognise. The cowering, slightly pathetic guy doing his best to get it right, the incredibly porous arrogant guy fuming as everyone gets it wrong, people bumbling through no matter what, this kind of Carry On spirit from all these characters determined that no matter what this show is going to happen. That is quite British thing.

The show has been staged everywhere from Tokyo to Budapest Shanghai, Cape Town and Melbourne though. Does that type of British humour appeal everywhere?

I think it does. There is something about that very British school of slapstick and farce that does translate very well. There have been 33 international productions of this show and when we finish in the UK we are going on to Hong Kong and to New Zealand, and the original cast are on Broadway with it at the moment.

Pratfalls and seeing people make a fool of themselves are funny in whatever language?

We can all come together with schadenfreude.

Does having to being so rehearsed make a tight ensemble cast?

We've been together for about 20 weeks now so it is quite a tight cast. One of the joys of this play is that while the murder at Haversham Manor is going on, which is the play within the play, the characters outside that all start to develop these strange bonds. There is great joy to be had in while you are concealing from the audience how your character feels about the show falling apart you trying very clearly to tell the other character on stage what an idiot you think they are. That is something that is born out of being a very close ensemble cast.

The show has been a huge success for Mischief Theatre, winning an Olivier and sparking spin-offs like Peter Pen Goes Wrong. What has it been like to work with them?

This is my first show with them. They've made such an extraordinary name for themselves and done so much amazing work in the last few years. They are an amazing bunch. I've done some physical comedy before. I suppose the closest I've ever done to this was the National Theatre production of One Man, Two Guvnors which I did for 18 months. However at this end I think I'll need a break because my goodness it is exhausting. It is also a real treat to do though - even when you are watching people leave the cast in a cast!

• The Play That Goes Wrong, Norwich Theatre Royal, June 12-17, 7.30pm, 2.30pm June 14/17, £28.50-£8, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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