Interview with Mischief Theatre Company Director Jonathan Sayer

Mischief Theatre Company is one of the most influential and innovative theatre companies of all time, in my opinion. They brought something fresh and funny to the theatre circuit without relying on crude jokes to bring in the crowds. Their latest show, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, is enjoying a third year in the West End and is setting off on an exciting UK tour.

Ahead of the show coming to Leeds Grand Theatre from Monday 22nd to Saturday 27th October, I got hold of a syndicated Q&A with Mischief Theatre Company Director Jonathan Sayer. Though he isn’t starring in the UK tour, he has written the show. I’ve seen him perform before in The Play That Goes Wrong and he’s incredibly, unusually talented. I’m as sure as I possibly can be that The Comedy About A Bank Robbery will be amazing!

Mischief Theatre celebrates its 10th anniversary this year – what was your inspiration when you first started out and did you have a ‘game plan’?

Our main inspiration comes from our teachers who we trained with at LAMDA. Adam Meggido who runs the company responsible for Showstopper the Improvised Musical, for example, has been a huge inspiration for Mischief Theatre’s beginnings. Personally, I was inspired by the style of old silent movies; Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton. We’ve also been heavily influenced by a man called Michael Green, who wrote The Art of Coarse Acting and the coarse acting plays, which are mini plays about things going wrong in the theatre and different amateur actors and their styles of acting. Quite sadly, Michael Green died this year. We dimmed the lights in the theatres as a mark of respect.

Was it a struggle initially to get the company off the ground and have you been surprised by the scale of global success you have achieved?

We’ve definitely been surprised by the success of the company! In hindsight, you look back and you say ‘oh wasn’t that a struggle’ when we weren’t being paid. This was before we met our producers. We were working different jobs but everyone was all in it together, building the set and putting stuff on. You don’t look at it as a struggle because, at the time, it’s just really good fun, working with your friends. There were certainly moments when we all had to rally together but we’re really lucky to have a team who love being and creating together and share a similar mind-set. That makes it easier.

Why do you think your comedy shows work so well today?

I think people need to laugh a lot at the moment and I think we’re really good at offering pure escapism. It’s not political, it’s not about anything other than being as funny as you possibly can be, minute by minute, and making people laugh.

It’s not about anything other than being as funny

What has been the inspiration for some of the storylines – and for the play within a play concept for the Goes Wrong shows?

For the play within a play concept for the Goes Wrong shows, you can go as far back as the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but, as mentioned before, Michael Green and The Art of Coarse Acting is a really big part of that.

A huge inspiration for The Comedy About A Bank Robbery has been silent comedies, big physical comedy, like Charlie Chaplin. A lot of that work started out in the theatre, in vaudeville and in the music hall, doing these big dangerous stunts and then they moved it onto the silent screen.

And aside from the bigger conceptual ideas there are also (sadly) moments taken from our own lives. If we’re talking about The Play That Goes Wrong, I’ve definitely missed an entrance in a straight play before. I know that Henry Lewis, one of the writers, got stuck in a dog flap once and that comes up in Peter Pan Goes Wrong… there’s a whole list of embarrassing moments that happened to us in real life!

What turns an initial idea into a production that gets taken forward?

First of all, it’s just about sitting down and forcing yourself to write it. I co-write with Henry Shields and Henry Lewis. And then the way we work is that we develop all the scripts with the core creative team, so we’ll write a script and get it on its feet with the guys and workshop it and they’ll critique it and add to it. And then you bring in creatives, designers, directors and others and then it snowballs under the wonderful auspices of our producers.

Now in its third year in the West End, how does The Comedy About A Bank Robbery differ from previous shows?

There’s a huge difference between Bank and our other shows in the fact that Bank is not a ‘play within a play’. It’s a traditional fourth wall play, but you can still expect an incredibly high gag rate, huge stunts like the previous shows, all intertwined with some Marx Brothers patter and also lovely singing and bits of acrobatics. It’s a much more ambitious piece! And then of course as well it has a big storyline to it, so you really fall in love with the characters and follow their journey.

There is a large element of physical slapstick which requires split-second timing – have there ever been any serious mishaps?

There have been some serious mishaps; we’ve had broken feet, dislocated shoulders, concussions (I’ve had three concussions), lots of repetitive stress BUT on the whole everything is very safe and definitely well rehearsed. It’s a contact sport I suppose and, particularly with the original team, you get such a huge amount of enthusiasm and people who are really happy to throw themselves around. The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is a fantastic example of that, there are big jaw-dropping stunts in there.

What advice would you give to other young theatre companies starting out?

Just go for it! Make something happen and don’t be scared to fail. When you fail you’ll look back and feel proud and find that you’ve learnt something. Very often you find that the only thing that stops you from doing something is yourself. There’s always a million different reasons not to put yourself out there and have a go, and only one reason to do it. So just really remember that one reason and be driven by your passion and your friends and your heart. It’s always really scary, so just be bold and take a jump at it.

The Comedy About A Bank Robbery sounds right up your street, right?

Do not miss – I repeat DO NOT MISS – The Comedy About A Bank Robbery when it comes to Leeds Grand Theatre. Get your tickets sorted!

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