What: Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Where & when: The Civic, from October 31; Opera House, Wellington, November 21-25 and Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, November 28-December 2
"I've got eight children, so chaos is my second language!"
Jay Laga'aia sits in the empty Civic Theatre, dressed as a pirate, taking a moment to contemplate the size of its stage. It's a rare moment of calm in what is set to be a wild ride. In 11 days, the much-loved New Zealand entertainer, more latterly based in Australia, will be on that stage in one of the most boisterous productions he's ever performed in.
And let's not forget in a career spanning decades, the 55-year-old has played Captain Typho in Star Wars Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith — you don't get much more motion picture than that — and starred in musicals like The Lion King, Wicked and Jesus Christ Superstar and had lead TV roles in a swag of top-rating shows.
Laga'aia writes books, records albums, stars in Jay's Jungle, an Aussie series for pre-schoolers, and is an ambassador for Queensland Kindergartens. That's on top of being a dad to kids aged 36 to 9 and a grandfather of three.
So would could require more energy, more vim and vigour than all of that? It's the West End comedy Peter Pan Goes Wrong, where Laga'aia is the narrator and pirate in a show where technical hitches, flying mishaps and cast disputes are embraced; likewise the set, which Laga'aia describes as a character in its own right, will probably fall apart. It means dodging falling walls and doing a fair few stunts involving doors that won't open, windows that won't close and flying across a stage on wires that just don't work as they should.
"Every inanimate object is out to get you in this show."
Surely, having been in explosive scenes in Star Wars, Laga'aia is used to all that? Well, that was a blockbuster and, while he certainly enjoyed watching the actions scenes, they were done largely by professional stunties.
Yet Laga'aia acknowledges he was desperate to be part of Peter Pan Goes Wrong. After all, it's made by one of the most successful comic theatre companies of recent times so who wouldn't want a piece of that action?
He was in Shrek: The Musical this year, hearing entertaining stories from castmate Luke Joslin about what a great time he'd had in The Play That Goes Wrong. Even though he hadn't seen it, Laga'aia thought it sounded like his kind of show — Monty Python-esque and packed with the kind of humour and physical comedy the entire family could enjoy.
"There's really not that many physical theatre comedies out there," he says, adding that the finely tuned farce and Buster Keaton-inspired slapstick require split-second timing, which adds to the challenge.
Nominated for an Olivier Award in 2016 for Best New Comedy, Peter Pan Goes Wrong is the third production from Mischief Theatre, a company founded almost by accident by UK drama school graduates Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields.
Their first show, The Play That Goes Wrong, was performed in NZ a year ago following hit season after hit season all over the world. The premise is simple enough — the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society are putting on a show which is ruined because of the am-dram budget and experience of performers who are more interested in petty rivalries than learning their lines.
It's based on stories and anecdotes of plays and performances that really have gone wrong, some of which the Mischief trio themselves were in. The mix of traditional British farce and Vaudeville was so successful that Mischief quickly followed it up with The Comedy About a Bank Robbery and Peter Pan Goes Wrong. At one point, all three shows were running on London's West End.
Laga'aia says J.M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan — about the boy who never grows up — is loved around the world and, with pirates, including the devilish Captain Hook, fairies and lost boys, it's obviously ripe for the Mischief treatment. For his part, Mischief cofounder Henry Lewis says he's still amazed that actors of such high calibre are prepared to risk their careers by signing up to perform in such a maniacal production.