Why 'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' has universal comedic appeal

The show's Broadway cast, many of whom have performed in it or The Play That Goes Wrong before, shares what makes this show that goes wrong so hilariously right.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Even if you don't know Peter Pan Goes Wrong, you're likely familiar with the first part of that title. The story of the boy from Neverland who wouldn't grow up first took flight in 1904 as a play by J.M. Barrie and continues to shape countless childhoods worldwide.

In 2013, Mischief Theatre Company — a comedy theatre group led by British writer/performers Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis, and Henry Shields — followed up the success of their smash hit The Play That Goes Wrong with their own take on that beloved tale. Peter Pan Goes Wrong is less of an adaptation and more of a play-within-a-play, as the fictional Cornley University Drama Society is actually putting on Peter Pan.

But there’s a key difference: The show gets derailed almost constantly by mile-a-minute slapstick in the form of crumbling sets, forgotten lines, offstage fights, and fly rigs that don't actually lift up the actors.

This physical comedy, plus the globally familiar, family-friendly nature of Peter Pan, makes Mischief's show — now premiering on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre — a treat for anybody. As performer Fred Gray described the play, "It just feels like you've been hugged."

"The show is pretty much language-independent," added performer Stephen James Anthony. "Folks who may not speak English well or first could probably still enjoy the show."

Hear more from Peter Pan Goes Wrong's cast and creators about even more reasons to join them in Neverland through July 23.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong uses The Play That Goes Wrong playbook.

The two shows have the same creator, after all. Peter Pan Goes Wrong isn't an official sequel to The Play That Goes Wrong, but both center on the same Cornley troupe. Their murder mystery play in The Play That Goes Wrong was a bust, but the group decides to give it another go with Peter Pan.

"It's rare that you get to go see a different show with the characters that you love from a previous show, even though it's about a totally different plot," said understudy Ryan Vincent Anderson. "You're going get the lovable characters you like [from The Play That Goes Wrong], but you're also going to get the absolutely amazing story of Peter Pan."

Sure, Cornley's staging still goes awry, in part due to the characters' offstage squabbles: "You get a little bit more of a peek into the relationships going on between the cast of Cornley," Greg Tannahill, who plays Jonathan, explained. "You see... things going wrong and them not dealing with it in the best way, but you also get a little peek at them not dealing with each other in the best way."

Nonetheless, keen fans will notice growth in the familiar characters, like sound board operator Trevor, diva Sandra, and stage manager-turned-actress Annie.

"We've learned some things about how to produce better theatre," said understudy Brenann Stacker, referring to the Cornley troupe. "They're better actors, they're better scenic designers. They're actually growing as human beings."

The cast members are friends on stage and off.

Multiple Peter Pan Goes Wrong actors met at drama school together. Chris Leask and Matt Cavendish — who play Trevor and Max, respectively — were in the same year. Sayer, Shields, and Lewis created Mischief as a group project during their time at university.

Plus, most of the principal cast members worked together on the show's premiere 10 years ago, and others have worked with Mischief in at least one production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong or The Play That Goes Wrong worldwide.

"It's not just a working relationship. We're all best mates, and we have been for the last 13 years, which is why Mischief came together in the first place," said Leask. "Everyone just enjoyed working together and creating theatre. The charm of Mischief is that we all know each other so well. We all just want to get out [there] every night and have fun and entertain our audience. You can see that relationship on stage between the actors."

In other words, Peter Pan Goes Wrong lets the actors goof off with their friends. What could be more fun than that?

Peter Pan is a globally beloved story.

"We've done [Peter Pan Goes Wrong] in several different countries, and we keep thinking, how are we going to adapt it for this particular country?" said director Adam Meggio. "And in the end, you don't actually have to do that much with it because it's Peter Pan, which is a fairly universal story.

"People tend to know it," he continued. "And even if you don't know it, it doesn't matter, because you get it when you watch it." The nostalgic familiarity of Peter Pan and its characters — Peter, Tinkerbell, Wendy, Captain Hook — is a major reason Mischief's version succeeded in multiple countries on both sides of the Atlantic.

The play is rooted in a popular British theatre form.

"Back in the U.K., we have a big English tradition of the pantomime," Meggio explained. "The grand style of acting, the actor down in the footlights being a villain, puffs of smoke and people appear, old stage magic."

In short, pantomime is just a more exaggerated version of what comedic performing already is. The concept of pantomime may be uniquely British, but its old-fashioned, campy performance style is universal.

That said, the creators made some tweaks for American audiences, mainly vocabulary-wise. "Rather than white spirit, it's paint thinner," Sayer said. Added Shields: "We've changed the word interval to intermission... We also had to change the word polytechnic to university, which is fair because I don't think even British people really know what to call it."

Peter Pan Goes Wrong takes flight — literally.

You can't follow the second star straight on 'till morning on foot. Peter Pan and Tinkerbell must fly, and that's only half the complex stage magic going on in this show. "There's loads of elaborate routines like flying and pirate ships and creating these incredible sets," described Shields. "That really is just fodder for us to tear everything apart."

In other words, expect lots of flying, but in the hands of the clueless Cornley company, expect lots of failed takeoffs and falling, too.

We all have an inner Peter Pan.

Unlike Peter Pan, we're all growing up whether we like it or not. But at Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the actors and audience members can stop the clock for a few hours.

"There's something really universal about not growing up, right?" said Anthony. "Life gets serious and difficult, especially in these past few years, and who doesn't want to go back to a place of childlike wonder and simple pleasures?"

Added Anderson: "Our inner child just withers away sometimes. We kind of have to, to get through life, but then to come to a show like this and just experience childlike joy, it's amazing."

Everyone loves when things go wrong.

No one likes embarrassing themselves, but when others do it, it's comedy. When asked why this phenomenon is so universal, the Peter Pan Goes Wrong cast had quick answers.

"Comedy is mostly about status and status transactions: people thinking that they're better than they are, and then getting their comeuppance and being knocked down a peg or two," Meggio said. "Those sorts of things tend to be very human."

Anthony had just the word: "Schadenfreude. There's something delicious about watching someone get defeated by a prop, or, despite their best efforts to be very respectable, they end up looking like an absolute fool." We might usually feel bad for laughing, but at Peter Pan Goes Wrong, it's not only okay, but encouraged.

The play isn't just funny — it's heartfelt.

Despite facing setbacks at every turn, the actors are determined to make it through their play. Peter Pan Goes Wrong sincerely celebrates resilience and teamwork, which one might not expect from a show bursting with gags.

Harry Kershaw, who plays Francis, made this point by comparing Peter Pan Goes Wrong to The Office. "[In] the English Office... the most successful thing that's happened is that Ricky Gervais has told someone to fuck off," he said. "That's the win, whereas the American Office ends on a more upbeat note, with Michael Scott being a hero.

"In this show, there's more of a sense of everyone who's managed to finish the show is a hero," Kershaw continued. "There's a wonderful sense of achievement."

That warm feeling, plus all the joy from the comedy leading up to it, makes this trip to Neverland worthwhile.

Responses have been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Photo credit: Photo credit: The cast of Peter Pan Goes Wrong in London in 2015. (Photo by Alastair Muir)

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