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Mischief Theatre have proven their metal in the West End, winning the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy for The Play That Goes Wrong, and were recently nominated once again for their Christmas production Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which returns to London later this year.
From humble beginnings performing above a pub and multiple seasons at the Edinburgh Fringe, the company are going from strength to strength, and with their latest show The Comedy about a Bank Robbery currently in rehearsals, the company could soon find themselves with three shows running simultaneously in the West End. As huge fans of the 'Goes Wrong' franchise, we were excited to get a sneak peak behind the scenes at the preperations for this brand new comedy which opens at the Criterion Theatre for previews on 31 March, and we were lucky enough to snag some time with members of the cast and creative team to find out more about the production and what's in store for London audiences.
Taking a break from a highly physical rehearsal ahead of moving into the theatre, we sat down with cast member Dave Hearn who has appeared in all three Mischief Theatre productions, and is once again preparing to flex his comedic muscles in a completely new style of show.
DOH: Mischief Theatre are clearly a very tight group - does that devotion to each other make this more than just a normal acting job?
DH: Yes definitely. The devotion tends to come from us wanting to make it good. Everybody's aim is obviously to make it good, and the key thing is that no one has an ego about anything. It's about what works and what doesn't work in the context of the show. It's about drilling and drilling and getting it right – we have previews but as far as we're concerned we open to a paying audience on 31 March and yes it will change, but that show has to be ready by then and we have to have a show that's ready for people to watch and one that we're proud of.
DOH: Do you feel additional pressure with Bank Robbery because of how successful the previous two have been?
DH: Yeah – I guess so. Although my instinct is to say no! I have a lot of faith in us as a company and the work we do. I guess the scary thing about this show is because it isn't a 'Goes Wrong' show we're weirdly in unfamiliar territory because our relationship with the audience is pretty much non-existent. The first week of this it was about training ourselves not to react to every single joke with people laughing watching rehearsal. There's pressure because it's a slightly different context for the style of comedy that we're doing but for me personally I don't really feel it in the same way – I'm just really excited! I'm confident and I think it'll be a really good show. I know the other people in the show so well and have so much faith – everyone is so good at what they do. In my head they're these kinds of giants of comedy and I'm just along here for the ride.
DOH: And the show itself - is it as descriptive as the title makes out?
DH: It is literally a comedy about a bank robbery! The idea of it is a bunch of people who are stupid trying to rob a bank. It's not like the 'Goes Wrong' shows as it's not a clown comedy and it's more conventional – everything in 'Goes Wrong' has to be literal, whereas in this we have car chases and things like that, so I guess there's more artistic license with this style of show and it can be more outside the realms of believability in terms of its creativity.
DOH: Do you find that harder to work with or is it more liberating?
DH: It's liberating and terrifying at the same time. You can tell if a joke's funny because you can tell if it gets a laugh, but you can't tell if the show's good because you don't have the immediacy of that feedback. I have so much respect for people who don't do comedy – I've been to see shows like Hamlet for example, it can be an amazing production but everyone sits in silence for two hours. It's hard to tell if it's going well – in comedy you get the immediate feedback. We can play with what we can and can't do, but it's also terrifying being in front of an audience saying “this is what we think is good”, and then you realise quite quickly if people don't laugh what isn't funny.
DOH: Does the 'Goes Wrong' format give you a mask to hide behind because we expect it to be bad?
DH: I guess so. The endeavour in the 'Goes Wrong' shows is to always act it as well as possible and to play it straight – act it like it's a murder mystery or a real production of Peter Pan. There's a technical part of your actor brain that knows the rhythm of the joke and setting up the next joke, and you have to split your focus in two to what you're playing to the audience but you have to be aware that you're setting up other jokes in about four lines or so, so you have to constantly be aware. If stuff does actually go wrong that isn't funny you can play with the clown a little bit – you can do a lot if you've messed up a joke, making it into something else. In this if a joke doesn't land there's nowhere to hide – there's no way out, and I think that is scary, because we're relying on the jokes being funny rather than us being funny.
DOH: Does it ever descend into a competition of who can be the funniest?
DH: No I don't think so because I'd definitely lose! I think everyone is good at knowing what each of us are good at doing. The competitive nature is trying to make other people look good the most. How can I win at making other people looking better. We have two newer guys in the company who we haven't worked with before and it's really interesting seeing them. I take for granted how long we've been together and we know each other so well, so if one of them is doing their 'bit' I know what I need to do to assist them. With the new guys I don't know what their thing is or what they're good at doing. There is an element of competition but in a positive and healthy way.
DOH: What aspect of your background or training has helped you in these roles?
DH: I was never really a confident actor, I never thought I was very good at it to be honest. At drama school I took myself so seriously and always thought I'd be a serious actor doing serious plays and I'd probably be in BBC dramas and serious things. Because I grew up in Essex and everything moves so fast, I found myself suited to improvisation. If you meet a 14 year old kid from Essex, they're so sharp, they are so fast and quick. My thing has always been speed and agility of thought. That encourages the flow of madness a little bit. For me personally that level of madness that's somewhere locked away in my brain is so useful for things like this. With this it's a shift back to more traditional acting. There are moments in it for audiences to feel empathy for the characters, and that's scary.
DOH: With Bank Robbery being a different style of show, has that changed the rehearsal process at all?
DH: We've maintained the same way of working – Mark is very good at keeping us in check. He sends us away to work on things and he's got to a point with us where he can be quite brutal and just say it doesn't work. There's no treading on egg shells – "that doesn't work", "that isn't funny", "we need to get rid of that" etc. We've all developed a short hand with each other – little things where we work in a very efficient way - we have another language to communicate! We had a bit of an epiphany the other day after we played a scene really straight without any comedy. We were all quite scared – we did it with everyone trying to do 'good' acting. In the 'Goes Wrong' shows you have a mask to hide behind, it's not really about 'good' acting. I guess it's what normal actors do all the time but for us it was brand new – let's be brave.
DOH: Your journey with Mischief Theatre has been amazing - is it hard to pick one highlight?
DH: The highlight has to be winning the Olivier. I genuinely didn't think we'd win. I wanted us to win obviously and we deserved to be there – we had all worked really really hard. All of the guys who have got behind us even just for a second and believed in the shows, to win that was just a huge achievement for everyone. We were excited to get dressed up, go down the red carpet and see the celebrities, then when we won it, and you feel the weight of the thing you just think "Wow, that's ours". No one can ever take that away. Other people think this is good, and that has to be a highlight. I cried so much. I screamed like I was at a football match and then just sat there in silence. Those shows at the Old Red Lion, the hours and hours at the Edinburgh Fringe and the flyering...it has all come together. I was so shocked the first time we had someone to wash our clothes! We've been nominated again which is great, and the next year...Imagine if we got the hat-trick!
DOH: And then Broadway next we hear...?
DH: I'll believe Broadway when it happens. When I'm on the plane. No, when I'm in my Central Park apartment. You know what, I probably won't believe it until Henry does the opening speech on the first night...
The Comedy About a Bank Robbery begins performances at the Criterion Theatre on 31 March 2016.