There is a loud crash on the other end of the phone line as scenic designer Simon Scullion, without any sense of irony whatsoever, says, “Sorry. I just tripped over something.” The ironic thing is he’s the designer responsible for the set that comes crashing down around the actors nightly in Peter Pan Goes Wrong on Broadway. Maybe he’s just used to it?
Peter Pan Goes Wrong is the manic brainchild of U.K.-based theatre company Mischief. The founders of Mischief, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, always wanted to do something big. But since their scrappy start in 2008 as a just-out-of-school improv group, the merry band of playmakers have been screwing everything up.
The group’s two most famous shows are Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which opened on Broadway in April at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre; and its predecessor, The Play That Goes Wrong, currently running in the West End and Off-Broadway, after a two-year Broadway run.
The play-within-a-play format each show employs supposes that audiences are attending a Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society production: a 1920s murder mystery in The Play That Goes Wrong and, as the present Broadway title suggests, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Though the Cornley group is long on heart, they come up short on craft. From forgotten lines and collapsing set pieces to concussions and electrocutions, something is always going horribly awry.
Scullion’s designs are required to be multifaceted. While technically incorporating all the “goes wrong” aspects, he still has to ensure that audiences recognize they are at a production of Peter Pan. There has to be a nursery with a window. There should be a London skyline. And a pirate ship at sea. Scullion referenced years’ worth of Peter Pan films, books, and theatre productions to nail the familiarity. But he also watched a lot of YouTube videos of calamitous amateur theatre productions, with sets falling over and Peter flying into walls instead of through windows.
“We always had in our hearts the idea to do something incredibly ambitious going wrong,” says Shields. As Mischief’s success grew, so did their budget, allowing them to improve and expand on their ideas for Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which made its London premiere in 2013 “It was still very, very poorly done, I would say, at that stage,” Shields admits. “We did the best we could, but we didn't have the budget. We've gradually managed to increase it, and now we've got to the point where we can put the show on as we dreamed it would be.”
That increase in budget is reflected in the set design, with one of Mischief’s biggest gags yet: the revolving stage. (To explain why the fictional Cornley Drama Society has suddenly upped their stagecraft game, the writers have cleverly scripted a large donation from from the family of one of the student actors.) The revolve (or turntable, as it’s called this side of the pond) is split into three parts. The nursery and Neverland forest sections remain permanent, while the third section changes from the London scene, to the mermaid lagoon, to Captain Hook’s ship. In the final scenes of Cornley’s production, the revolve “breaks down and has a mind of its own,” Scullion explains. Part of the fun in the design for him was giving the actors interesting ways to navigate the spinning set as they try to continue their scenes in front of the audience.
In one scene, the pirate ship tilts as Captain Hook runs from stern to bow, then he pops through a door onto the nursery set, crosses to the opposite door, and is suddenly leaping over tress in the forest while the revolve continues to spin out of control. It’s chaotic.
The mayhem, though, is meticulous and safety is key. In fact, there is no automation in the show at all. All the flying and the controls of the turntable are manually operated. “There’s somebody with eyes on everything that can instantly stop something if it goes wrong,” says Scullion. (Actually wrong, that is.) The backstage plots are as choreographed as the onstage action. Gags, such as a collapsing bunk bed, are highly engineered. Other gags, like a loose table plank that smacks an actor in the face, are simpler, but are always actor controlled. “The simplest way of doing things is actually using people to literally hold things off-stage or to drop things,” says Scullion.
It’s a unique experience to have so many surprises while watching a play. The audience gasps and jumps throughout, with every startle followed by laughter. Scullion is careful not to give too much away, but he admits that a lot of the visual effects are augmented by manual sound effects. “Each hit usually has someone off stage with a slap board or hitting something on the floor to enhance the sound,” he says.
The rehearsal process for the “Goes Wrong” shows are shorter than customary rehearsal periods, as they require more time on the actual set to get all the gags timed right and working seamlessly. And Scullion says it’s been an ever-developing process. The writers come to him with a wish list of tricks they want, but since they’re also the performers, Scullion can’t get away with saying, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly ask an actor to do that,” because they just respond with, “Well, I’m going to do it.”
Peter Pan Goes Wrong has been a process of elimination over the years, though. Some ideas were actually deemed too unsafe (like audience members on stage). “The bad stuff didn’t physically work, but the good stuff stayed,” says Scullion. “And visually, for this version, we really wanted to push everything much, much more and make it slightly bigger and slightly slicker for Broadway.”
Peter Pan Goes Wrong runs through July 9 at the Barrymore Theatre where it officially opened April 19.
The Broadway bow features original U.K. cast members Henry Lewis as Robert, Jonathan Sayer as Dennis (beginning April 30), Henry Shields as Chris, Chris Leask as Trevor, Ellie Morris as Lucy, Charlie Russell as Sandra, Greg Tannahill as Jonathan, and Nancy Zamit as Annie. They are joined by Matthew Cavendish as Max, and Bianca Horn as Jill. The company is rounded out by Ryan Vincent Anderson, Stephen James Anthony, Fred Gray, Harry Kershaw, and Brenann Stacker.
The play reunites the work's original creative team, led by director Adam Meggido and including scenic designer Simon Scullion, costume designer Roberto Surace, lighting designer Matt Haskins, sound designer Ella Wahlström, and co-composers Richard Baker and Rob Falconer. The Broadway bow is being produced by Kevin McCollum, Kenny Wax, Stage Presence, and Catherine Schreiber.