Banished from speaking in his drama school production of Medea, Jonathan Sayer was determined to prove to his tutors there was more to him than comedy.

They'd told him he always played for laughs and they weren't risking that with Medea, the classical Greek tragedy about a woman who avenges her husband's betrayal by killing their sons. Because of his youthful countenance, Sayer was cast as the corpse of one of the children but, even in fictional death, he was determined to give an Olivier Award-winning performance to show his more serious side.

Backstage and wearing nothing but white linen shorts, Sayer daubed his near-naked body with fake blood made from corn syrup, food colouring and corn flour. The lights went down; he made his way on to the black lino covered stage to collapse and await his moment in the spotlight when his broken and bleeding body would be hauled across it.

Trouble was those lights started heating the goopy blood mixture so by the time Medea came to drag her slaughtered son across the stage, it had turned to glue and Sayer was stuck to the floor.


"I decided to be helpful and arched my back ever so slightly so she could move me but then my trousers started coming off so I decided to discreetly pull them back up . . . "
Even without uttering a word, Sayer elicited a laugh from an audience that should have been stunned into silence.

He can't remember what his tutors at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art said but now, a decade on, they'd be only too happy to invite him back to talk about how to make Olivier Award-winning comedy.

In 2008, Sayer and fellow students Henry Lewis and Henry Shields started Mischief Theatre Company to make comic plays, starting out in small London venues and festivals like Edinburgh. In 2012, they took anecdotes like Sayer's "Medea moment" and crafted what is now one of the biggest comedy theatre shows of recent times. Since its debut at Islington's Red Lion Hotel, The Play That Goes Wrong has been performed in 23 countries. It's still running in London's West End - along with another of the trio's plays, The Comedy About the Bank Robbery - and on Broadway.

Now it's coming to New Zealand and Sayer and Lewis, speaking from New York, see no reason why it won't amuse and entertain audiences in Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland. Rather than being cocky about their achievements - they sound more self-deprecating and guileless then smug and boastful - they're simply basing that on what they've seen everywhere else in the world.

Be it Sweden or South Africa, it seems we all laugh at the extremely well-timed physical comedy and farce The Play That Goes Wrong offers. It may also be that many of us have been involved in amateur - now more politely called community - theatre, a choir or band and witnessed some of the same antics that occur: a piece of the set falling off during a performance, someone forgetting their lines, the missed cue and the special effect that falls flat.

"It's a traditional British farce structure combined with the idea of doing something, having it go wrong and then trying to fix it but making it much worse," says Lewis. "It's something that's happened to us all so everybody can empathise or sympathise with the idea of wanting the ground to open and swallow you up. It means we can take the show to lots of different countries, all over the world, and find we share the same sense of humour, the same moments make people laugh."

Sayer adds they drew a lot on silent movies, the sort of "visual gags" they saw in old Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy movies.

"There's a slightly vaudeville feel to it," he says. "Vaudeville started off in the theatre but was sort of taken over by cinema, so it's nice to be part of a team bringing that back to people in theatre."

It's no exaggeration to say The Play That Goes Wrong well and truly brings the house down as the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society tries to put on the Best Show Ever. Given the way things fall apart, it means the timing of every stunt, set piece and scripted line has to be exact.

Miraculously, in five years, there's only been one dislocated shoulder and a broken metatarsal.

"It looks chaotic but it's very, very sharp," says Lewis.

What: The Play That Goes Wrong
Where & when: ASB Waterfront Theatre, October 11-22