After having wrapped up its Broadway run on July 23rd, the West London-based Mischief Theatre troupe returns to Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre for the first time since 2019 when the Tony Award-winning The Play That Goes Wrong made audience members laugh deliriously until they were hunched over, gasping for breath.
In this sequel, which originally premiered in December 2013, the Mischief company and their eccentrically infamous characters, again belonging to the narrative’s crack Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, are now attempting to stage another production despite their previous go-around, The Murder at Haversham Manor, being an epically unqualified disaster of hysterical proportions. The new undertaking is J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, a classic which is commonly wrought to a consummate fruition by capable hands.
But these hands might as well be mangled and, as innocent bystanders, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Peter Pan Goes Wrong — which is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields who double as performers just as they did in the Wrong predecessor — marks a socially acceptable way to revel in the misfortune of others, absolving us of any guilt or wrongdoing. After all, in this meta tale, the infractions are being exclusively committed by its uproariously oblivious personae.
From flying harnesses that fail to cooperate, to prolonged technical belches, and boisterous bedlam among the play-within-a-play’s cast, who couldn’t stand in a straight line if they dutifully tried, this slapstick Peter Pan repeatedly crashes on its path to Neverland, incorporating not only the physically dependent comic timing (with not a millisecond to spare) of its real-life Mischief performers, who have curated a deft knack for it, but a set that paradoxically holds up despite the prat and pitfalls that continuously befall it. Certainly, with all the awards The Play That Goes Wrong’s set received, Simon Scullion’s scenic design entices as another incentive to experience Peter Pan Goes Wrong, as does the announcement that The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford will play Cornley Drama Society’s Francis, the Narrator, through August 27th, followed by Lost’s Daniel Dae Kim from August 30th through September 10th, and finally How I Met Your Mother‘s Neil Patrick Harris who will inhabit the same role from the 12th through the September 17th closing date.
To further expound on the engrossing misadventures that awaits the Ahmanson Theatre, Mischief Theatre’s Charlie Russell, who originated the role of Sandra Wilkinson (as initially seen in The Play That Goes Wrong), discusses the fabulous foibles of her character, the lead actress of the fictional Cornley program who attempts to depict Wendy, and how in circumspect combination with director Adam Meggido’s guidance and other personnel, Peter Pan Goes Wrong comes across as a fiasco in the funniest and most welcomed way.
How would you describe your character Sandra to someone who has never seen Peter Pan Goes Wrong or other Mischief Theatre productions?
Russell: Sandra believes herself to be a leading lady, and one of the only competent members of the group. Of course, she plays Wendy! Unlike some of the other characters, though, she does care deeply for her fellow cast members, even when they frustrate her. Her main focus is the play, making sure it happens, and making sure she doesn’t let on that things have gone awry. Her next main focus is making sure people think she’s good! I’d say her biggest flaw is her self-consciousness, which manifests itself in vanity, and some…odd acting choices. She goes on a journey, too, from rigidly sticking to the rules to following her heart, and it’s a privilege to play her.
For many who have seen The Play That Goes Wrong, or Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the timing plays a crucial role in the overall hijinks and comedy, which also heavily relies on physicality. In other words, there is very little margin for error. How do you approach this as an actor and have there been times when things did indeed go wrong on stage (e.g., someone was injured)? If so, how were such mishaps dealt with?
Russell: You’re right, it is a tightly choreographed show; it has to be. If you stand in a different spot at the wrong time, you could well be injured for real! Over the years I’ve approached Mischief shows in varying ways, but what I’ve come to learn is that it takes balance. Genuine discipline is essential when it comes to the physicality, to avoid injury and to make it repeatable eight times a week. Discipline is required for all comedy moments, too, knowing when to pull back, being attentive but wary of where the audience focus should be (perhaps it’s not yourself) in order to maximize the comedic impact of a joke.
But one also needs to be very present and alive to the moment, which is something Mischief does well in my opinion. It’s a comedy show, and the best comedy shows are alive, where you engage and respond to the show that’s in front of you, not the ‘perfect’ show in your head. You need that flexibility for when things go wrong, too! Because, of course, they do. It’s hard to talk about specifics without giving away spoilers…but when people say, ‘I suppose it doesn’t matter if something really goes wrong,’ I always think, ‘two wrongs don’t make a right!’ In our show, something actually going wrong usually means a joke didn’t happen. In other words, when something that should fall down, or should break, just doesn’t. Muscle memory takes over and we all look to a specific place on set just as…nothing happens. That can be awkward! And, invariably, we need that thing to have fallen for the next few jokes to work, so we have to quickly engineer a way to make something — or someone (!) — fall down or else the next few moments are going to be quite odd and, well, boring!
Has your character and/or participation changed in any way over the years?
Russell: Sandra has evolved. I think I know who she is a bit more now; hopefully, there’s some more detail! Recently, my favorite thing has been experimenting with how subtly I can react and still get the story or humor across, how much I can trust that the audience sees it, so I don’t force it, but maintain the farcical style? ‘How hard can Sandra work to pretend nothing has gone wrong?’ is a fun question I ask myself before a show sometimes. It’s always an exploration, every show. Sometimes I get it, sometimes I really don’t!
What has it been like working with director Adam Meggido? For a show with incredibly precise timing, is there an opportunity to improvise some of your non-verbal expressions, or sometimes your lines, based on the audience’s reactions?
Russell: Working with Adam is great; he’s been the director since the very beginning. He makes sure we have ownership over and take responsibility for all the different layers at play — the Cornley gang and their backstage lives and stories, a physical farce, and also the original magic of J.M Barrie’s story. And as in all good collaborations, he and Fred Gray [associate director] never stop challenging me to do better!
The ability to engage with the audience and each other afresh every night is essential for the show, and a privilege to get to do. We know the bones of the show, the moments that must be there to ensure that the audience gets all the story and jokes that we worked so hard to put in. The script itself is pretty tight now, the words tend to be there for a reason so it’s best not to play with them too much, just trust it. The facial expressions aren’t ‘fixed’ at all. Just the inherent character intentions, their actions, and their feelings. Playing the moment truthfully usually yields the best result, whatever that may be.
A thing that makes Peter Pan Goes Wrong extra exciting is the audience interaction, and that’s completely unpredictable. It’s great fun when Harry Kershaw or Henry Shields, for instance, improvises a comeback to a heckle. In my case, Sandra would probably avoid doing that at all costs but I still get to have my fun. A fun thing is when I hear an unusual laugh and I get to shoot that audience member a look — which usually makes them laugh even more!
The interaction with the audience means the show changes night to night and I think that’s what makes it a special experience for an audience. We couldn’t do it without them; they’re basically a company member themselves!
With the comedy being as outlandishly hilarious as it’s purported to be, have there been instances when you’ve made each other legitimately laugh on stage? If so, what’s that been like?
Russell: Oh gosh. I am the worst. I’m terrified the cast are going to implement a ‘Laugh Jar.’ I’d go bankrupt. I find my castmates unbelievably funny, and some of them I’ve known since I was a teenager. It can be hard to keep a straight face when they’re so talented, or when something goes wrong for real.
There’s a moment in the show where Jonathan Sayer, who plays Dennis, is standing very close to me and has to shout a line directly into my face. Every performance I’m clenching my jaw and buttocks so hard not to just burst out laughing right back at him. Ultimately, it’s much better that we don’t laugh too much, or it lowers the stakes of the moment and thus reduces how funny it is for the audience. What really makes our show work is that the characters truly care and are in varying forms of emotional pain when things go wrong. To the Cornley gang, when it goes wrong, it’s a tragedy! And in my opinion there’s something off-putting when you can see that an actor is pretending to break for comedy effect, when it’s not legitimate as you put it. So…come and see the show and see how desperately hard I’m working not to laugh. Every day is a challenge for me!
Without spoiling too much, do you have a personal favorite scene or moment in the play?
Russell: I have a soft spot for the opening nursery scene, all the way until the Darling children leave for Neverland. It’s the longest we spend in one location, on one set and I love the flow of it. It feels like a real team effort, too, with all of us working together to tell the story, set up jokes, and introduce characters and relationships. But those revolve sequences…well, you’ll have to come and see it to find out!
Lastly, what are your expectations for the West Coast premiere of Peter Pan Goes Wrong in Los Angeles?
Russell: I really believe that the audiences will enjoy it. It’s a wonderful bit of escapism where we, a bunch of silly British people, invite you to laugh at us. Come and switch off, laugh, enjoy yourselves, as Mischief give you permission. Perhaps surprisingly to some, there is a heartwarming storyline running through the show, and I always end the play feeling uplifted. I think the audience will, too. I suspect it’s what people really need right now, and we’re more than happy to provide it.
For more information on Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson Theatre (through Sun, Sept. 17th), and to purchase tickets, please visit centertheatregroup.org