Entertainment & Arts

Mischief Theatre: From bank robberies to Broadway

Actors in The Comedy About A Bank Robbery Image copyright Mischief Theatre
Image caption The Comedy About A Bank Robbery has just opened in London

Who would want to see a play that goes wrong? Quite a lot of people, it turns out. Mischief Theatre, the company behind The Play That Goes Wrong, found themselves with such a big surprise West End hit that they're now branching out into Broadway and bank robberies.

Henry Lewis is happy. And he has good reason to be.

The writer, producer and artistic director of Mischief Theatre has been reading the reviews of the company's latest production: The Comedy About A Bank Robbery.

Time Out proclaims it "the best new comedy to open straight onto the West End in decades," while The Times and The Telegraph each award it five stars.

"We've been really thrilled," Lewis tells the BBC of the reviews. "We were a little bit nervous but we're relieved that we got such lovely write-ups."

It's understandable that Lewis, together with co-founders Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer, were anxious - it's rare and risky for a new show to open straight into the West End.

"We haven't done a tour or a run at a smaller London theatre as we did with our previous shows," Lewis says.

Those previous shows include The Play That Goes Wrong - which brought the company to mainstream attention after becoming something of a surprise hit.

But its success didn't happen overnight.

"We wrote that show in a month or two and then got it into a fringe theatre. Then it took a whole year of doing it in various different small runs before we got it onto a national tour, and then it took almost another year to get it onto the West End," Lewis explains.

Image copyright Mischief Theatre
Image caption Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields (l-r) founded Mischief Theatre in 2008

The Play That Goes Wrong was originally booked for a short run in the West End, but its huge popularity with audiences meant it kept getting extended.

It ended up winning an Olivier in 2015 for best new comedy and is still playing in the Duchess Theatre - currently booked there until February 2017.

"Absolutely it was a surprise hit," Lewis says.

"When we first did it it was in a 60 seat theatre in a fringe show, and we had no idea it was something that would take off and what would happen with it."

The Play That Goes Wrong is, basically, what it says in the title. It's a show within a show, which sees a group of hapless actors attempt to stage a murder mystery.

Inevitably, the actors miss cues and forget lines, the staging collapses, props don't work... in fact just about every possible thing you can imagine disrupts the play.

Given the need for every little thing to go wrong at precisely the right time, the show itself is ironically one of the most tightly-rehearsed in London's West End.

The rave reviews, extensions and popularity with audiences led to a spin-off show, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which entered the West End last Christmas.

Image copyright Mischief Theatre
Image caption Peter Pan Goes Wrong will return to London's West End in October

"I think quite early on we knew we wanted to do another Goes Wrong text, and do a treatment of an existing text and we thought it would be fun to do it for Christmas, so that's where Peter Pan Goes Wrong came from," Lewis explains.

Peter Pan is due to return to the capital for another festive run in October, which means that come late 2016, Mischief Theatre will have three plays in the West End.

But the newest of the trio, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, marks a slight departure from the two Goes Wrong plays.

True, quite a number of things do go wrong for the diamond heist robbers, but the show is not part of the same series as its predecessors.

"It's always been a different project. It's a play with a 'fourth wall', there's no connection with the audience, no sense that it's actors putting on a play and it's going wrong," Lewis says.

Broadway beckons

The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is a traditional crime caper set in the 1950s. Typically for Mischief Theatre, it relies heavily on physical comedy - including one incredibly ambitious scene that appears to defy the laws of gravity.

But it also features much more wordplay and even a bit of singing, with the cast performing short a cappella numbers during scene changes.

Considering the scale of the production, it's perhaps surprising the whole show was put together in a relatively short time.

"We started writing around a year ago in earnest and then we were writing it over the summer while we were doing The Play That Goes Wrong," Lewis explains.

"Then we did a workshop in the autumn, and then we found out very soon after that that the Criterion theatre was available and we were able to start in March."

Lewis, Sayer and Shields then had to replace themselves in The Play That Goes Wrong with new actors, so they could work on and star in The Comedy About A Bank Robbery.

Image copyright Mischief Theatre
Image caption The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is a farcical crime caper set in the 1950s

But fans of the Goes Wrong brand will be reassured to hear that the masterminds behind it aren't leaving it behind.

"We're keen to do a couple of different projects, just to make sure we are kind of doing as much diverse work as possible and exploring different styles of comedy," Lewis says.

"But I'm sure that once we've done a few other things, and when the time feels right, we'll return [to Goes Wrong] and do something else."

"We wouldn't want to flood anywhere with it and make it too much or there be too many. It's nice that The Play That Goes Wrong is still running but it's not everywhere. If we had one in every theatre it probably wouldn't be as special."

The natural next question for the company, of course, is where to go next, and how best to build on their successful streak.

"We are working on a couple of TV projects which we're starting to write, and will be recording later in the year," reveals Lewis.

"Plus, we're still waiting for final confirmation, but it's looking very likely that The Play That Goes Wrong will be going to New York from the beginning of next year as well."

A Broadway transfer would be the icing on the cake for a company that began by performing to audiences of 60 people in tiny venues.

Arguably, they'll soon have to change the name of their series to The Plays That Went Right.

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