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Peter Pan Goes Wrong writer tells how things went right

Actor and writer Jonathan Sayer talks about Peter Pan Goes Wrong which is coming to Newcastle Theatre Royal

Alastair Muir Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Peter Pan Goes Wrong

It all went wrong for three drama school graduates and they’ve never looked back.

Currently they are generating laughter and applause in London’s West End while their new show is on its way to Newcastle Theatre Royal.

Londoners have The Play That Goes Wrong while we will be getting Peter Pan Goes Wrong.

That’s an awful lot of stuff going wrong.

Of course, there are lots of potential departures from the script in the theatre – stumbles, missed cues, malfunctioning props and forgotten lines being just a few.

Most professional theatre companies strive to avoid them. However, Jonathan Sayer and his friends embraced them – or, rather, made them part of a play, The Play That Goes Wrong, that took the dizzying route from pub to West End theatre.

Wolf Marloh Jonathan Sayer, co-writer of Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Jonathan Sayer, co-writer of Peter Pan Goes Wrong

Jonathan, who is originally from Manchester, explains that Mischief Theatre was formed in 2008 by graduates and students of the London Academy of Music and Art (Lamda).

Improvisation was its speciality and it worked well in comedy clubs and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe where the friends – Jonathan and two Henrys, Lewis and Shields – cut their teeth in front of some tough audiences.

“We just wanted the Edinburgh experience,” says Jonathan.

He and Henry Lewis graduated in 2011 and Henry Shields in 2012. As they strove to get a toe-hold in the business, they did mundane jobs to pay the bills – but they were flat sharing.

“We worked in pubs and call centres and restaurants,” says Jonathan. ”We’d all get home after 10 o’clock, have a bit of dinner and then get talking.

Alastair Muir Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Peter Pan Goes Wrong

“We definitely wanted to write something. We wanted to do something that had the same energy of an improv show but was scripted.

“We all came at it from different angles. We did a lot of clowning at Lamda and I’ve got a particular interest in Keaton and Chaplin. I like visual jokes.

“Henry (one of them) had worked with Michael Green who wrote The Art of Coarse Acting about how to be a bad actor.

“But if you’re writing in a group, it’s really good for producing comedy. If you write something and your two friends don’t laugh, there’s a good chance the audience won’t laugh.

“The one thing you learn quite quickly is that you’ve got to be honest with the people you’re working with.”

The friends came up with a one-act play about an amateur dramatic group, the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, putting on a 1920s murder mystery.

It was called The Murder Before Christmas.

Alastair Muir Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Peter Pan Goes Wrong

They booked a room in a pub theatre, the Old Red Lion. “We were the second show on, at 9.30pm,” says Jonathan.

“All I can remember is the group before us had this big sack of rice and they’d drop it everywhere. We had 10 minutes to sweep it all up and get our set on.

“But people came to see it and it was very well received. We had a great time doing it.”

The 55-minute show transferred to a small space at the Trafalgar Studios theatre in London where, one night, it was seen by a pair of influential producers, Kenny Wax and Mark Bentley.

“They said they’d like to be involved,” says Jonathan. “They wanted us to turn it into a two-act play.”

Renamed The Play The Goes Wrong, and promoted with the slogan “Save money - don’t come”, the trio’s malfunctioning hit embarked on a national tour (missing the North East) and then settled into the West End where it won the Olivier Award for best new comedy and has been packing them in ever since.

Now comes Peter Pan Goes Wrong, another comedy but not featuring the three friends because they are busy in the London play.

“We’re not reallly making hay while the sun shines because we’d already written Peter Pan before The Play That Goes Wrong became really successful,” says Jonathan.

“We hever had any idea that The Play That Goes Wrong would have the longevity that it has.”

When the big-time producers heard about the Peter Pan show, and that it was scheduled for a short Christmas run in an Islington theatre, they apparently said: “Oh, if it goes well we could do that one as well.”

Alastair Muir Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Peter Pan Goes Wrong

So they did and it is coming our way.

It sounds a lot more dangerous than the original play. “There are people in the air,” says Jonathan.

“There are quite a lot of people in the air. And it’s on a revolve (a revolving stage).

“I doubt there’s a revolve that spins faster in the whole of theatre.

“People do tend to think you can get away with anything in a show like this but it all has to be so sophisticated and the timing has to be spot on.”

Jonathan says they had a “huge audition process” to find the right people for the parts.

“We have met some fascinating people and some really talented people who we knew would be fun to work with.

Alastair Muir Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Peter Pan Goes Wrong

“But initially it just started with three people doing it in a pub and now doing it in the West End. It is a really nice thing to have happened but we do work really hard.

“We are aware that we’ve been handed a fantastic opportunity.”

Possibly next up for the lads of Mischief Theatre is a musical that goes wrong. Plenty of scope, there.

But first up for Newcastle audiences are the adventures of Peter, Wendy and the Lost Boys as you might never have seen them before.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong is at the Theatre Royal from Wednesday, July 1 to Saturday, July 4. Box office: 08448 112121 or www.theatreroyal.co.uk

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