West End interview: The Comedy About a Bank Robbery Cast
Mischief Theatre return to the West End this week as their new play The Comedy about a Bank Robbery officially opens at the Criterion Theatre. We caught up with performers and writers Henry Shields, Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer as they prepared to move into the theatre to begin technical rehearsals.
Fans of Mischief's 2015 Olivier Award Best New Comedy The Play That Goes Wrong, and the Olivier Nominated Peter Pan Goes Wrong will no doubt enjoy this brand new production that sees familiar faces in new situations, this time with a fully original story.
HS: Henry Shields
HL: Henry Lewis
JS: Jonathan Sayer
HL: Having done the ‘Goes Wrong’ shows which people talk about as being farces, we wanted to have a go at a 'true' farce, and we thought about various different genres that we could blend that with and we came to the conclusion that doing that with a heist story in a 1950s American Caper movie feel would lend itself quite well. That was the very starting point and it was a fun thing to try and tackle – we've been working on it for about a year and a half.
DOH: All three of you are credited as writers, how does it work writing as a team?
HS: We always write together at the moment, but we started writing individually – we split it up into scenes and we gave each other little bits and pieces and then merged it all together. In some respects it was very successful and in others it was an absolute nightmare because a lot of the stuff didn't gel. We ended up with a lot of jokes we liked but material that didn't fit together with other people's work, so it was a very tricky way of doing it. We've now learned that the best way to do it is for us to sit all together at a computer and just hash it out.
DOH: Does that ever lead to conflicts between you?
JS: Punches are often thrown! We worked as an improv company for years and years and we try to take the ethos of improv into the writing room, so hopefully we try and build on each other's ideas. It's not particularly conflicting.
HS: There are disagreements now and then but it usually stems from us trying our hardest to imagine something that's so far away and hard to get your head round. We've always found that as soon as you get into a rehearsal room everything changes and it becomes so much clearer when you get it up on its feet. When you're in the writing room and you're trying to imagine all of that detail we end up trying to second-guess ourselves.
HL: It's true. If someone has an idea it's nice that it's sometimes challenged. It's very rare that one person’s idea goes into the show without input from everybody else, so everything has had additional stuff added to it which is why it's better writing as a team rather than us all just doing little bits.
JS: I think the challenge in writing comedy is you want to strike a healthy balance between making it a very open room where you're giving your fellow writers ideas space to try things out, but also you're scrutinizing each other's ideas. There's nothing worse than something not being funny and no one says anything. We all made a pact together a long long time ago that if something isn’t funny we'd just say it isn’t funny. I think writing comedy and writing in general you should treat it like plumbing – if a guy comes round to fix your taps and they're still leaking, you say it's still leaking. He won't be upset, it's just a practical thing and I think you've got to try and approach this work in the same way. It's a practical thing and it's subjective and you've got to have personal distance.
HL: It's quite unusual for people to be so blunt but no one takes it personally.
JS: We've all worked together for so long that we encourage everyone to tell everyone how they feel – sometimes they do that in quite a delicate way, sometimes they just tell you it’s not very good, but you develop a thick skin. I think it's a very good way of working. Kenny our Producer doesn't really pull any punches, and that's the stuff that makes it good. As long as you're always scrutinizing in a positive way, that's only going to make the work better.
DOH: Do you feel the pressure with Bank Robbery to live up to the previous two shows?
HL: Yeah for sure. It's different as well. Doing ‘Peter Pan’ there was a confidence that it was the same characters returning – this is completely new characters, a completely new style of comedy in a way, so yes there is a pressure and we want to make sure we get it right so we're working hard.
HS: There's no more pressure than if this was our first show though to be honest. There's pressure because it's so big and it's all new material – we have no idea if it's funny really, it's all completely new stuff, a brand new theatre opening straight in the West End. The added pressure of doing two shows before is minute in comparison to just doing a new show.
JS: I think as well you've just got to learn to enjoy the pressure. There are fantastic opportunities that are being opened up to us and pressure is a part of it and you've got to make that a positive thing rather than worry about it.
DOH: Did any of you ever imagine that your shows would be as commercially successful as they have been?
JS: I don't think anyone expected what's happened with our shows to happen – we've always had a lot of confidence and belief in them. I remember after the first preview of our second run at the pub and Mark the director said this is a lot more commercial than we realised. We had always considered it as a clown show or an acting play show.
HS: We've always tried to be as funny as we can for as many people as we can, so we don't worry about anything more that that. Whatever makes us laugh. It was never our aim to make money out of it or be commercial; it's about trying to be as funny as we can.
What’s the one thing that links all three productions together?
HS: It's a lot of things. The company is obviously the through line and that shapes it hugely. Our language of comedy which we've developed over the entire life of the company for the past eight years. Definitely during the improv years we came up with our own way of making each other laugh and making other people laugh which was developed through hundreds and hundreds of hours of improvisation – I think that hopefully comes across in all three shows.
HL: Whilst it's a different style of comedy the sense of humour is shared, so hopefully people who have laughed along with The Play That Goes Wrong will come and enjoy this in the same way.
HS: Our method of putting on shows is fairly unique. Our actors have a lot more control that you'd expect in any other production, everybody has quite a large say in everything – everyone can comment of the set for example and offer their thoughts. Occasionally that slows things down but we do end up with a better product in the end. It's the same with the script – all of the actors can speak to us about things they want to change in the script and it's a group process, everything's done by committee.
HL: It's different if we're recasting shows or if we're building shows from scratch. From scratch it's more collaborative. As the team expands it can get a bit more tricky as we add more voices into the pot, but I think as long as you keep the process moving then that's a positive thing. As soon as things become departmentalised then people get aggressive and a bit territorial, and I think that's what we try and avoid. Working with everybody throwing his or her opinion in reminds you that everybody does want the same thing and that's to create a great show.
JS: That's an important thing about the work that we do. In many ways we have a bit of a fringe mentality – everyone is mucking through together and everyone is getting their hands dirty. I think the death of theatre is departments and people having specific jobs. It's better if it's collaborative and everyone builds something together. That is harder to do, but I think it's much more rewarding from a sense of the work being good because you listen to people and you learn every day.
HS: The best ideas from everybody will always be better than just that one person. It takes much effort and is much harder to do, but I think if you can do it it's more worthwhile.
DOH: Has this style of comedy always been something you’ve wanted to do?
HL: We formed the company at drama school so we always had an interest in comedy. The Goes Wrong stuff came a couple of years after we graduated and this is a bit of a departure again.
DOH: What’s your biggest stress about ‘Bank Robbery?’
JS: The stunt work! One thing that we're really trying to do is set the bar as high as we possibly can, and that includes making the stunts and the visual things bigger bolder and braver. There's some really big stunt work in this so we've all had a lot of physical training, we've had circus people in helping us, we've had stunt people in and it's just being able to do that stuff. You've got to make sure it's safe and that the theatre is happy and that we're happy. That's one of the biggest stresses.
HL: The two big routines are quite set reliant – you can't rehearse without the wall or the apparatus.
JS: I'm getting a bit scared now because I've not got to rehearse that yet!
HS: The singing also! We've put quite a lot of songs in, I'm not quite sure why...They're fun, but as a group we're not the best singers. We've spent probably more time on that rather than anything else in this process.
JS: It's true – those a cappella songs probably make up about 5% of the show and they’ve probably made up about 80% of the rehearsal process!
HL: It does work really well! All very close harmony and it sounds great when we get it.
DOH: What’s been your most memorable part of your journey with Mischief to date?
HS: The awards and stuff have been terrifying. A mix of adrenalin, fear and anxiety. Always the most fun moment is opening night of a new show when it's funny. The best bit is standing in the wings listening to a joke get a laugh – a joke that you've written or had a part in writing, that's really good. Getting to the end of a first night show and knowing it's gone well that's the best thing for me.
HL: Quite often the things that are the most exciting are the most terrifying. The Royal Variety Performance for example, the nerves in that. We really didn't know how it was going to go down, quite what the audience were like in the room or how it would translate to camera, it was a real ‘all or nothing’. To come off and hear people say it was good and the relief of that. It's more relief from intense stress.
HS: The opening speech at the Royal Variety Performance – I've never been more scared than that.
HL: We were there all day – there was so much waiting. I got changed about three hours before we went on just to have something to do.
HS: I ran my lines for the opening speech about 1000 times just over and over again.
HL: I think when we found out that The Play That Goes Wrong was extending and would become an open ended run, that was pretty amazing. We started out in a 60 seat theatre and then finding out more people wanted to see it and it would have a life beyond us being in it, that was just so exciting to see something you've created have a life of its own, that was really amazing.
JS: We went to Budapest recently and we watched a replica production where everything was exactly the same other than it was being performed in Hungarian. What was incredible was afterwards we went to a pub with these Hungarian people, and all of their conversations all of their problems and their weird things that we thought were unique to us they had also had. It was like going into a parallel universe where everything was the same but so different. So many things have been born out of this very tiny thing, and that's amazing.