The Play that Goes Wrong: 4 things you didn’t know!
✨ PATRICK WARNER
Lucy Eaton recently sat down with our good friend Patrick Warner, an unforgettable actor with a voice like golden syrup. Having just finished performing in The Play that Goes Wrong for no less than 2 years, he dished all the dirt on some of the lesser known aspects of the play.
A huge part of the rehearsal process was clown work
During rehearsals, half the day would be improvised clowning workshops with the show’s original director Mark Bell. I’d actually been taught clown by Mark at LAMDA when I was training, but it was really fun to do all that stuff again.
One of the exercises involves your clowns coming out of the nightclub and waiting for taxis. You’re all pretending to stand at a taxi rank and Mark would say “Ok, a taxi comes by.” We all look hopeful and expectant. “…It doesn’t stop.” Everyone looks deflated. “A taxi comes by it stops! It lets just you in Paddy.” I start miming climbing into a taxi and then Mark will say “Actually, it changes its mind and drives away” so my clown (who’s very auguste) is left standing in the street desperately trying to save face, but absolutely raging. We’d also do the classic thing where you’re walking down the road and somebody waves at you, so you wave back then realise they were waving at somebody behind you, so you have to justify the wave. The whole point of a clown is that they’re always failing; they’re always trying really hard and just making things worse, which is exactly what The Play That Goes Wrong is centred around. We were in hysterics watching each other in these rehearsals. Mark Bell does all that stuff really artfully, really well. By the end of rehearsals everyone had their own distinct things that were hilarious and were then built into their characters, which we took on tour. We had a run of refresher rehearsals before we came into the West End with out incredible associate director Sean Turner, who really helped us free things up after a year on the road. We had this backdrop of clowning and then because of the improv that a lot of us had been doing pre-show as well as within it for the duration of the tour, we had so much to build on when we started our second run, in London. The clowns just came out more and more.
I think the version of the show that’s happening now (the new cast took over a couple of months ago) is quite different to the way we did it. But to an outside eye, it probably looks exactly the same. The same beats etc. Every cast of the show will be working towards the same goal, but there will be huge difference in the quality and feel of each version of those characters.
When things genuinely went wrong it was almost always because things went right!
Most of the time when something goes wrong, it is the absence of a mistake. Like a pyro (fire effect) not going off, so nobody’s terrified and that guy doesn't run in with a fire extinguisher, which doesn’t ruin the scene, so no one has to struggle to fix it. Or getting to a moment where something is meant to fall down and it doesn’t. “Oh that’s not broken. We’re all safe. Never mind. No danger!” One night, the whole mezzanine level didn’t come down when it was meant to, so the stage-manager character of Trevor wasn’t crushed underneath. I had to just improvise an argument with him and then I threw him out the window and turned to look at the audience with a look of horror on my face, genuinely thinking “What happens now!?” But it always works. The audience somehow never notice, which continues to surprise me.
One night on tour when a few really big things went wrong, I walked off so embarrassed thinking “I can’t believe the audience had to see that” then we went into a Q&A with a bunch of school kids and one girl stuck her hand up and asked “Does anything actually ever go wrong??” I couldn’t believe it!
The audience member who points out the ledger under the chaise-longue isn’t a plant
They originally asked if I wanted to do it with a stooge, like the sandwich moment in One Man, Two Guvnors, but I said no. I didn’t want it to be the same every night, and I also believed that I could get a response out of an audience member if given enough time! 99% of the time I said “A ledger??!” enough, and somebody in the audience would shout out to help me. If they didn’t, I just read the room, played a nervous breakdown in miniature, and moved on.
But the ensuing rant changed a lot every show. I had the same 3 line set up for the immediate aftermath of the audience member getting involved: “What do you think you’re doing? You can’t just join in! I’m in the middle of a performance here!” Audience laughter was anathema to my character so we were cooking with charcoal as soon as anybody found it funny. Ideally the audience, in their nervousness, would start saying stupid things and I could play on that. It usually felt quite safe because it wasn’t about delivering jokes, I just had to really commit to the reality of my frustration and disbelief. Once I genuinely berated the audience until they stopped laughing… then it’s time for a joke! My last two weeks on the show I had a real blast, I was doing whatever I wanted with that section.
It turns out I’ve made a bit of a recognisable sound bite with my rendition of “A ledger?!” The Russian cast sent us a good luck message on opening night (there’s a lovely family feel between a bunch of the international casts) and in the recording they all chorused: “Good luck! Break a leg! Or as you say A LEDGER!?” Apparently in Russian there isn’t a word for “ledger” (bukhgalterskaya kniga seems to be the closest, and doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue) and there’s no definite article, so they just say “gross book,” or something, which just means ‘big book’. So at that moment, my character is just screaming “BIG BOOK! BIG BOOK!” which I personally think is even more hilarious.
Most of the acting doesn’t involve speaking
Even though the cast I was part of were doing the show for 2 years (touring internationally and then going into the West End), we couldn’t get complacent or go on auto pilot. It has to be really, really live because so much of the play isn’t even lines. The characters in The Play that Goes Wrong are the cast of The Murder at Haversham Manor, and those are the lines really. They’re not supposed to say anything else. Everything around that is just a look or an accident. So the performance is huge amounts of eye contact and trying to communicate things to each other without the audience getting to see. Because the Duchess Theatre is such a beautiful little West End theatre, you could react very realistically and try not to get noticed, inexpertly trying to be discreet, and the audience would get it and it would be wonderful. It was a special kind of play to do.