The title says it all. Who has not seen the various High School productions of ‘Peter Pan’ sprinkled throughout YouTube where the sets fall down or the flying rig zips poor Wendy out of her bed and sends her crashing into a set window? If you have not then you are missing out on loads of laughs such gaffs supply. This is the perfect show to ‘go wrong.’ There are so many possibilities that the audience may have trouble keeping up with the action that is supposed to happen, according to the script, as well as the mayhem that does transpire onstage due to mishaps. To produce a version of ‘Peter Pan’ complete with everything that could go wrong with it is inspired. It is also no easy feat.

Mischief Theatre is a British theatre company founded in 2008 by a group of students from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) in West London, and directed by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields. The group originally began doing improvised shows, but by 2012 expanded into comedic theatrical performances that included choreographed routines, jokes, and stunts. The company is well known for their comedic performances as the fictional theatre company, The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, enacting amateur performances that go wrong. Each performer has their amateur identity within the Drama Society that they keep throughout whatever production they may be doing. They have created many works in the ‘goes wrong’ genre including ‘The Play That Goes Wrong,’ ‘The Goes Wrong Show’ and ‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong,’ which made its premiere at the Pleasance Theatre in London in December 2013. The company will be presenting Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown L.A. August 8 – September 10, 2023.  Tickets are on sale now.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong - (L-R) Nancy Zamit and Greg Tannahill - Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Peter Pan Goes Wrong – (L-R) Nancy Zamit and Greg Tannahill – Photo by Jeremy Daniel

I was able to catch up with two of the original members of Mischief Theatre, Nancy Zamit and Greg Tannahill at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway, in New York City, as they were between shows and graciously spared me a minute. In the world of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society Nancy Zamit’s character is Annie Twilloil and Greg Tannahill’s character is Jonathan Harris. These characters run through virtually all of the ‘gone wrong’ shows and have been developed over the course of the history of Mischief Theatre. In ‘Peter Pan’ Zamit’s character Annie plays; Mrs. Darling, Liza the maid, Tinkerbell, and Tigerlily while Tannahill’s character Jonathan plays Peter Pan.

I wanted to know if either of them were familiar with Los Angeles and its environs and was informed that both of them had been in Los Angeles before but only for three days each. Tannahill explained that he had spent most of his money on cabs trying to get around and seeing the spread out sights that L.A. has to offer, while Zamit was pregnant when she was visiting and remembers being sick most of the time. Neither experience was one for the books, but I believe that L.A. calls for more than three days, and they both shall have it when they return here to perform at the Ahmanson Theater.

Zamit and Tannahill met early on in the formation of Mischief Theatre as most of the founding members were from LAMDA and shared a common background in the training and love of Improv and Clowning. One of the teachers was Mark Bell, Head of physical theatre at LAMDA, who taught Clowning and eventually directed the ‘Play That Goes Wrong’ when it first came to the West End, London.

Zamit explains: “We made the show in the theater first and so we’d done it hundreds of times. The Peter Pan crew is kind of the most OG crew you can get. We were an Improv company first. We did about nine years at the Edinburgh Fringe with an Improv show. And then ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ was the first scripted thing that we’d ever done. And then we were like, oh that’s good, we should be doing this, this is great.” This is how the run of ‘Goes Wrong’ shows began and eventually led to ‘Peter Pan.’

Peter Pan Goes Wrong - Greg Tannahill, Charlie Russell, Matthew Cavendish, and Bartley Booz - Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Peter Pan Goes Wrong – Greg Tannahill, Charlie Russell, Matthew Cavendish, and Bartley Booz – Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Tannahill then added: “When the ‘Play That Goes Wrong’ went well, and we got some more financial support, the writers and everyone, we just got more ambitious, and decided to write in a load of more technical elements and more expensive things.”

Which was slightly adjusted by a lucid memory of Zamit concerning ‘Peter Pan’: “I don’t know, I feel like we didn’t have that much financial support when we first did this because Greg was being flown without a counterweight system. It was literally just a guy in the wings pulling him upwards, like burning his hands.”

“It was a guy, I had never flown before and the guy who was pulling the ropes and stuff had never flown anyone before, so we were just like working it out ourselves.” Tannahill added.

Anyone seeing this show will gape incredulous at the aerial histrionics being performed onstage. It is nothing short of a kind of surgery where Tannahill as ‘Peter Pan’ must hit certain marks and not become seriously injured. And all of this while speaking his lines and pretending that everything is OK.

I wondered if the fly-rigging had become automated or was there still only one man manipulating his lines. Tannahill responded: “No, we’ve got two guys, both called Richard at the moment, the two Richards, one doing the up and down, one doing the side-to-side so yeah, they’ve got to work in synch. And with this show, the previous times we’ve done it as well there’s definitely a learning curve. There’s a few bruises as we work everything out. But I keep saying every bruise is a lesson, just how not to get that bruise in the same place again. And luckily with the guys here, because in the past, years ago, the fly guys have been a bit tentative like ‘that’s a bit dangerous,’ the guys here are straightaway ‘Ok, great voom!’ Bang!”

In this case the confidence and speed win out as Tannahill zips through the air seemingly out-of-control and careens into various set pieces all while carrying on with the show. Really, the adage ‘The show must go on’ is taken to ridiculous lengths here and only adds to the absurdity of the situations. The ‘two Richards’ each deserve a medal for their attentive dexterity with the fly rigging both for Tannahill’s manipulations and also others.

I needed to mention a particularly tight cue that happens halfway through the show and will easily be missed if one isn’t paying attention. At one point in the show a stagehand replaces ‘Peter’ in his rigging and through a few missteps manages to knock himself out while in the harness. He is standing on the ground when this unfortunate event occurs and if he falls forward  his head will hit the floor as that is how physics works. Miraculously, he falls forward and is suspended just off of the floor as the rigging has adjusted for his height and the two Richards have deftly and seemingly without notice lifted him so that he can hang freely and cause a very funny sequence to transpire. This is a pratfall worthy of Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton with a split-second timing reminiscent of the Keystone Cops! Kudos to the two Richards as they are on the job and on their game. Zamit remarked: “You have a good eye for seeing that cue.”

While Tannahill added: “That knock-out is a very tricky one. We have to be very precise. There is not much wiggle room.” And then Zamit: “That’s one of the reasons it’s not automated, stuff like that. They get their own bow every night. We love them.” And love them they should, especially when their lives literally depend on the Richards’ attention and expertise.

There was an additional realization coming from Zamit about the flying rig and the particular challenges it creates: “You know what I thought the other day for the first time which I was like, I’ve seen Greg do this show for so many years and I was so, just looking at him doing the flying one night and it’s his vocal track that I think is one of the most impressive things to me because you never go up! in a line, you never make that sound, you never strain your voice, you’ve got your flying and your vocal track exactly in synch so when you’re flipping around you’re still getting your line out really crisp and your abs just must be like! I don’t know what your core is doing, your core is just insane.” To which Tannahill replied: “I’m a yoga everyday man!” This is because of the demands of the rigging and flipping and fighting while flying. He is also the Fight Coordinator on the show keeping him in additional tip-top shape.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong - (L-R) Ellie Morris, Chris Leask, and Bianca Horn - Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Peter Pan Goes Wrong – (L-R) Ellie Morris, Chris Leask, and Bianca Horn – Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Zamit is the Choreographer for the show and she pulls from her experience growing up as a dancer and performing with various dance troupes around London. She describes how Mischief Theatre came to musical theater: “But we did like long form storytelling Improv, it was never like games and short form, we would do improvised movies, so we were always thinking about storytelling and characterization and that kind of stuff in our improv, so it was very natural. And we were always throwing each other around and picking each other up, it was really physical improv. If you saw our early Improv work it’s kind of a natural progression to go into singing and dancing.”

And then her own personal journey affected by acting: “I danced for my whole youth – from 8 to 16 years old in different general dance troupes, I sort of stopped dancing when I realized I could speak onstage. And that was a more viable career because I think a dancer’s career is a really hard one.” She also did a lot of jazz when she was younger and that informs some of the dancing in the show. Another aspect of her choreography is one of her own experiences early on in the process: “I broke my foot in the first run of the show so that is where it’s all come from, is that my feet really never move, they’re really rooted because I’m terrified of braking my feet again so it became all up top and in the middle because I was too scared to move my feet after that.” This is interesting because by imposing self-made limitations on movement one may come up with an entire movement vocabulary or signature that creates an overall style. This is the case with ‘Peter Pan.’

Understandably, because the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is a group of amateur actors only getting together after work and on weekends, their status is reflected in the choreography of whatever show they do, and ‘Peter Pan’ is no exception. As Zamit puts it: “Horrible moves! I’m qualified to do it because my qualifications end at age 16. That was the perfect amount of what I needed to do my best with it. Also, it’s difficult because no one really dances, actually Greg is one of the best dancers and you’re wasted because you’re not there. We’re just working with a bunch of people who kind of hate dancing, but that’s amazing to me because then I get them to do hip thrusts and really stupid moves that makes it worse for them.”

There are two fabulously strange moments of slow jazz choreography in the show, which is a surprise as most of the movement until then has been more or less straightforward musical theater steps. These are set to a soulful sax solo and come out of nowhere making them stand out all the more from the usual theatrical fare. Zamit enlightened me: “Mainly it’s the musicians that put that sax solo in – in such a raunchy way that I didn’t really need to do anything. I said be sensual and do whatever you feel. I want your most sensual shadow you can do – and he (Henry Lewis) was like, right! His interpretation of that will be really funny because he doesn’t dance but he will commit totally to that.” And commit he does, so much so that I would like to see more of his interpretive jazz perhaps to Billy Holliday or a K.D. Lang torch song. It is so great when you have people that don’t consider themselves movers because they have natural untrained movement qualities that can be commanding visually.

Zamit added: “It’s better that there are non-dancers. It is illegal that we are dancing on Broadway! It’s a comedy show.” Tannahill followed: “We want to make people laugh, we cram in as many jokes as we can.” Then Zamit: “And some of those jokes are just us dancing, trying to dance. It’s just so fun during rehearsal I kept asking all of you which is more stupid, this or this. What’s the cringiest move we can do?” You won’t cringe, but you will laugh, and that is what they are after.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong - (L-R) Charlie Russell, Greg Tannahill, Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, Bartley Booz, and Nancy Zamit - Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Peter Pan Goes Wrong – (L-R) Charlie Russell, Greg Tannahill, Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, Bartley Booz, and Nancy Zamit – Photo by Jeremy Daniel

One aspect of the show which is different from what we are used to here in the U.S. is the Pantomime performance or ‘Panto’ for short. They are usually performed at Christmas and New Years as part of the holiday celebrations. Panto takes its roots from commedia dell’arte, it is a very stylized form of theatre with stock characters and scenes, much like what Mischief Theatre has set up in their ‘gone wrong’ genre of shows. Stories are based loosely on traditional fairy tales, such as ‘Peter Pan’ but there is always enough saucy humor and contemporary references to entertain the whole family. A big part of Panto is the audience participation.

Tannahill relates that the company had a meeting trying to decide what American audiences might and might not respond to as Panto is not as popular here as it is in the U.K. Although there was some concern about the audience participation, he need not have worried. The New York audience took to yelling back and forth at the characters as much as the U.K. audiences. Zamit says: We’ve adapted everything to have an American version of the back and forth with the crowd. It’s not an American thing when everyone just shouts on purpose. The Broadway audiences are so loud they are screaming every night. It’s great.”

Tannahill mentions that there is also a funny exchange between Captain Hook and the crowd that exemplifies this energy between the actors onstage and the audience. They are participating in the show, not just sitting idly by and watching it. Zamit adds: “I think the reason that this is kinda nice for us is because you are so engaged as the audience and you’re asked to call out, you’re asked to engage vocally, you’re constantly engaged in the show, in joining in. We break the fourth wall in the show, that is the whole point of the show.”

Another aspect of the show which had to adapt to the bigger theaters and venues is the sound effects of the hits and sword fights, the falls, and slamming bodies, etc. Zamit remembered in the beginning all of the actors did their own sound effects for the hits and falls which is more immediate and controllable as each performer is responsible for their own stunts. However, that all changed when the show opened in the union theater. Now other people are backstage making the sounds of the hits and falls and it took some getting used to by the performers who for so long had been doing it themselves. As Tannahill points out: “There is a line because if it looks really real, the audience suddenly is too scared to enjoy the show. If the sound and the hit are too believable then they pull back. You’ve got to find that line and dance on it.” They also need to adjust the sounds if they are too tinny or dead. It makes the pratfalls believable or funny as they desire.

I just had to ask: “So none of your effects have ever gone wrong in this show?”

Tannahill’s response: “Haha, yes they have.”

Zamit chimed in: “It’s never an automation error but only a human error every now and then – we’ve done these shows for so long and there’s so much in place, we all have a safe word. If you’re doing a ‘Goes Wrong’ show you are saying ‘no, no, stop, stop’ all the time. And no one takes you seriously so we’ve got a specific safe word that anyone can shout out and bring an automatic show stop if anyone’s in danger.”

Peter Pan Goes Wrong - Matthew Cavendish (front) with (L-R) Harry Kershaw, Charlie Russell, Greg Tannahill, Henry Shields, Bartley Booz, and Henry Lewis - Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Peter Pan Goes Wrong – Matthew Cavendish (front) with (L-R) Harry Kershaw, Charlie Russell, Greg Tannahill, Henry Shields, Bartley Booz, and Henry Lewis – Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Tannahill adds: “It’s always opening night for Cornley so when something goes wrong they (the characters) reason that they have the rest of the show to do and nothing else will go wrong so just soldier on. Whatever goes wrong gets attended by a hierarchy of character development within Cornley’s group of amateur actors. The characters are further restricted by the audience watching them as they navigate whatever goes wrong onstage. How much of the mask cracks during the show from any individual character?” Not much at all from what I have seen.

Zamit: “All of us know how much our characters are opening up and trying to deal with the circumstances of the show happening all of the time in every scene at every moment. The show is full of jokes so there is no room for ad libs, it will affect everything that comes after. We are telling you by where we give focus what to laugh at. So it’s not just 8 people onstage going bah! Better to be specific.”

Tannahill: “Some of the solutions that these characters come up with to solve the problem onstage can be pretty stupid.” And therein lies the humor.

There is a sequence where a voice over is heard from one of the mics which has mistakenly been left on in the booth and we hear what we are not supposed to hear during the show. This can be very embarrassing depending on whose mic it is and what is being said. As a matter of fact, it has happened to me here in L.A. It has also happened to Nancy Zamit: “That happened to me! When I was doing a TV show, when I was young, I was a Disney kid, when I was 14 and I had a real crush on one of the guys and I was having my make-up done and my mic was on, and the entire production heard me say that I really liked this guy and I was gonna ask him out and I went back to set and everybody was like, Oh my god! but I was 14 so they didn’t know what to do, it wasn’t ok to laugh but it was so devastating!” Yes, it can be devastating, and it is in the show as well.

We ended our lovely time together as Zamit had a PT (Physical Therapy) appointment before the next show: “We’re all getting physical therapy all the time, We’re old now. And we’ve been falling over for 15 years.” That is quite a record and one they can be very proud of. Judging by the laughs and joy this production creates with these exceptional performers, they will get much older with more PT in their future as they spread their particular brand of lunacy and slapstick around the world. This is a family friendly show that every age group can enjoy and should.

The West Coast Premiere of “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” joins Center Theatre Group’s 2022-2023 season at the Ahmanson Theatre. The comedy sensation is set to play August 8 through September 10, 2023, closing out the 2022-2023 Ahmanson Theatre season.

For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit the Ahmanson Theatre website.

To learn more about Mischief Theatre, please visit their website.

Written by Brian Fretté for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Peter Pan Goes Wrong – (L-R) Henry Lewis, Harry Kershaw, Henry Shields, and Bartley Booz – Photo by Jeremy Daniel