Henry Shields, best known for his work with the renowned Mischief Theatre Company, takes time to talk to Luke Prowse Baldwin about his new show Groan Ups and the company’s forthcoming BBC TV series The Goes Wrong Show.
A huge thank you for taking time out to talk to us, Henry. Having seen work of Mischief myself, I can vouch that what you create is wonderful! First of all, how would you describe the theatre of Mischief?
What we do at Mischief is a lot of very energetic, broad appeal comedy. We’ve got the ‘Goes Wrong’ shows, which have been running for seven years now. As well as that, we’ve got The Comedy About a Bank Robbery and our new show, Groan Ups, and those are all about trying new and fun ways to make people laugh. What we’ve always tried to do is keep evolving and appeal to as many people as we can.
Fantastic! You’ve spoken in the past about how your work doesn’t showcase strong viewpoints. In the current political climate, how beneficial do you think shows like yours are?
I like to think that it’s very beneficial to not have a political outlook in our shows. We obviously have our own individual views, but we’ve always tried to keep those out of our work for the reason that everybody needs an escape. That’s what our shows provide. Especially now when everything is as awful as it is. It provides an opportunity for people, no matter their political leanings, to come together and laugh together. I think that is really quite special.
Absolutely. We need something to keep us sane. Let’s chat about Mischief’s newest stage show, Groan Ups, which opened at the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End a couple of weeks ago. It’s written by the usual dream team of Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and yourself. And, of course, you’re in it too! How would you explain the show?
“Everybody needs an escape”
Groan Ups is a show all about growing up. You follow five characters from the ages of six through to fourteen and then thirty. You see how they’ve changed and how they haven’t changed. Ultimately, it’s all about the things that happen in our past that affect who we become and how we hang on to things like that. I think it’s got a lot of very universal themes that everybody can relate to.
And where did the idea for it come from?
It’s based on a very old French style of theatre called Bouffon, which is taught at Lecoq’s school in France. Our teacher at drama school was trained at Lecoq, and he taught it to us. Bouffon is this very interesting style where actors play children in order to say awful things to the audience. The theory is it gives you licence to say absolutely anything because you are coming from innocence. An actor dresses up as a five-year-old and then insults everyone in the audience. It’s very funny.
I love it when it’s rooted in something like that, particularly from some time back.
It was the same with The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. That was based on French melodrama.
Awesome! Compared to the other roles you’ve had with Mischief, how are you finding playing a child?
It’s a lot of fun. I play Archie, who starts out as a very open and homosexual child. Then we hear his dad has been trying to repress those feelings and you see him become more and more oppressed, so it’s a very emotional story. It becomes quite sad, but it’s a lot of fun to play.
I can imagine. Which is your favourite of the plays you’ve written?
I probably had the most fun performing Peter Pan Goes Wrong. It’s such a joyous show. You get loads of kids. Everybody has a really good time, but of all the shows I’m probably most proud of Groan Ups. It’s the first time I’ve really done something that has a proper moral heart.
Moving onto your new TV series, The Goes Wrong Show, debuting on BBC One very soon. Did you have any television offers aside from the BBC?
We spent about two years pitching ideas. Everybody’s so risk averse, and there’s so much money in play. We pitched to the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. Ultimately what everything came down to was ‘let’s do a ‘Goes Wrong’ thing first’ and then move onto other ideas. We have a completely different sitcom that we’ve written quite a lot of, and that has sort of been picked up by the BBC. It’s to come after The Goes Wrong Show.
“We’d love to have a big Hollywood movie”
I look forward to that then! What’s been behind your desire to take Mischief’s work to the small screen?
I think it’s always been a desire to reach more people and that TV gives us a lot more scope. It lets us do ‘Goes Wrong’ in a totally different way. We have cameras that we can play with. We have bits of recording that can be played in. It gives us a completely different set of toys to play with.
All credit to you because there isn’t enough theatre on television in my opinion. What can viewers expect from the show?
Well, each week is a different play. We’re putting on six short original plays, and each play’s a different genre, so we’ve got completely different set and costumes each week. There’re the same characters (as in The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong) but in very different situations.
Something for everybody then. So, you’ve performed on both Broadway and the West End. You’ve won an Olivier. Your company now has a prime time slot on BBC One. Is there anything left you’d really like to achieve?
We’d love to have a big Hollywood movie. I think we’d also like to try pushing things that aren’t ‘Goes Wrong’. The ‘Goes Wrong’ stuff’s great, but we have other things that we love doing. The dream is that the ‘Goes Wrong’ brand will open the door to other work like Groan Ups and all the other ideas we have will be given room to flourish.
So not a BAFTA then?
[Laughs] Well, it’d be nice; we’ll see how The Goes Wrong Show goes. I wouldn’t turn down a BAFTA, but it’s not really about the awards. It’s about creating fun stuff. The goal has always been to have the freedom to create whatever we want to make.
Henry, I really appreciate you speaking to us. I don’t have a TV at mine, but I’ll be sure to be on iPlayer as soon as your first episode has aired. Good luck with it all!
Groan Ups is running at the Vaudeville Theatre until 1st December 2019.
Magic Goes Wrong is also running at the Vaudeville Theatre from 14th December 2019 until 31st May 2020.
The Play that Goes Wrong is still on until 1st November 2019 at the Duchess Theatre.
The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is running at the Criterion Theatre until 1st November 2020.
Find out more about all of Mischief Theatre’s shows here.