Back in 1998, ten-year-old aspiring actor Jonathan Sayer was touring the UK’s theatres in a production of Oliver!, directed by Sam Mendes no less, alongside Russ Abbot as Fagin.
“I was one of the workhouse kids – the really small one,” Sayer tells Northern Soul. “One of Fagin’s gang is called Nipper, and that role is traditionally played by the most tiny person, so that was me.” Towards the end of the year, the show settled in for a lengthy run at Manchester Opera House, now with Gary Wilmot as Fagin. For Sayer, this was a particular thrill as he’s from nearby Ashton-under-Lyne. “I went to drama club in Hurst Cross in Ashton and I’d done shows in the Manchester area.”
As a boy, Sayer would go on to tour with other musicals – Whistle Down the Wind, Les Misérables, Dr Dolittle – and today he’s an Olivier Award-winning writer, actor and producer. He’s one of the founders and key members of the Mischief Theatre Company, currently its creative director, and therefore one of the team who brought us the smash hit Show That Goes Wrong, its assorted siblings (Peter Pan Goes Wrong, Magic Goes Wrong, Groan Ups, The Comedy about a Bank Robbery) and BBC One’s delightful Goes Wrong Show.
Now Sayer is touring a new show, Mind Mangler, with his Mischief comrade Henry Lewis, and he’s evidently very proud of it.
“I think Mind Mangler might have the most jokes per page of anything we’ve done. There’s a lot of jokes, some real magic and some characters who you’re going to be rooting for, who’ll hopefully take you on a bit of a journey.”
Sayer’s connection to his Manchester roots remains strong – in fact, he’s become co-chairman of Ashton United FC, alongside his dad David, and his book on this experience, Nowhere to Run, is out later this year. But he cites a childhood spent sharing his grandad’s love of classic comedy as the door that lead him into that world.
“I’ve always liked acting, but I suppose my way in was watching old comedies – music hall, vaudeville and silent comedy. I’m a huge Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin fan. I watched quite a lot of Laurel and Hardy as well. And then Morecambe and Wise – that was probably my proper way in, because my grandad was a bit of an anorak about them. He had all of their specials and stuff on VHS, so I used to go round and just watch the tapes with him again and again and again. That was from quite a young age, so that was the thing that got me into performing and wanting to do comedy. And then here we are now.”
Sure enough, today Mischief and its assorted tendrils have become a huge, international comedy industry in their own right. The Play That Goes Wrong, in which members of the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society stage a period murder mystery which, well, doesn’t go at alright, opened modestly enough in 2012, but productions are currently running in Spain, Hungary, Latvia, the US and London, with a Broadway version of Peter Pan Goes Wrong about to open.
Within this explosion of success, then, have there been particular moments of Sayer being hit by the sheer scale of it?
“No, because I’ve always deliberately tried to avoid that,” he says. “We’ve tried so, so hard to just have the same ethos and the same mentality as when we were doing shows at the Fringe, particularly creatively. Obviously there have been nice moments. When The Play that Goes Wrong was first performed at the Canterbury Marlowe, we did a big jump from performing in front of 80 people to performing in front of 1,200 people with a huge set. Then when the show went to the West End, and opening on Broadway, and doing the Goes Wrong TV show for the first time – I suppose you do acknowledge ‘oh, these are really cool moments’. But I’ve always tried to not get too lost in impact of those moments – just go ‘oh, that was nice’ and then just carry on.”
Show That Goes Right
In a strange way, Mischief’s shows seem to carry some echo of Les Dawson’s celebrated piano routine – he played it badly with great comic effect, but to do that, he had to know how to play it really well. Presumably, in the same vein, the Mischief mob need to be totally on the ball.
“For sure – you have to be able to construct it in order to deconstruct it,” Sayer says. “ You have to be able to do the thing. For example, with the TV show, we always wanted to do a big dance number, but we’re not all phenomenal dancers, and some of us have minimal sense of rhythm, probably myself included. That’s a much harder thing to do, because you’ve got to do it well and it’s got to go wrong. You can’t just do it badly, because then it’s just scrappy. You need the precision and the timing to get the kind of physical punch lines in and stuff. The Mind Mangler is a good example of that. It’s not quite a Goes Wrong show, there is another element to this. We’re trying to make sure there’s some genuinely good magic in there and some wow factor. Even when you’re making those things go awry, you’ve got to have a good technical grasp on how to achieve that magical effect.”
When the tour reaches The Lowry in Salford this month, Mind Mangler, like Sayer himself, is almost returning home. It’s where Magic Goes Wrong was first staged back in 2019, prior to a West End run truncated by the pandemic, and the new show is a spin-off with some of the same characters.
“My character is kind of the Mind Mangler’s best pal-slash-audience-stooge-slash-not stooge. We really enjoyed writing for both of those characters, particularly I think for Keith, the Mind Mangler. We just thought it was a really fascinating, rich character to write for, because there’s a lot of heart in him.”
A lot of the appeal of the show is the well-established rapport between Sayer and Lewis.
“With me and Hen[ry Lewis], not just in Mind Mangler but in another stuff we’ve done, we’ve always written with that same dynamic where he’s this august ‘I never make a mistake’ kind of character and I’m the more naive lost soul who doesn’t really know whether it’s going well or not. Or doesn’t realise it’s their fault. Or thinks everything’s their fault. We’ve written for that kind of status dynamic before, and then when we did it in Magic Goes Wrong we could really start to explore that, because they’re not just speaking as characters in a play. They’re doing a magic show, so it’s more presentational. They can just be themselves, so you’re able to explore that kind of emotional story a little bit more. In a Goes Wrong show, you can only open the window so far and then you have to close it, because they have to keep on pretending to be whoever they are that day, whereas in this, they’re not pretending in the same way, so you can learn a little bit more about them. There’s a nice story arc to it.”
Mind Mangler is a careful balancing act between two very different things – getting big laughs, but also delivering some genuinely impressive stage magic.
“That’s definitely the hope,” Sayer says. “First and foremost, if you’re coming to see a Mischief show because you want to see something really funny, I’m pretty confident that you won’t be disappointed. The other thing is, we’ve worked with Ben Hart and Hannah Sharkey – Hannah’s our director and Ben’s our magic consultant. And I think they’ve really wanted to make sure, as have we, that if you’re coming to see some good magic, you’ll leave going ‘oh wow, how have they done that?’ There’s a few things where I still don’t fully understand they’re done.”
The final act
Northern Soul was lucky enough to see Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong at Manchester Opera House last year, complete with the original cast – including Sayer, who’d performed there in Oliver! as a nipper. The audience’s response to the arrival of the cast was almost rapturous.
Sayer says: “I wasn’t expecting that reaction at all. I got quite choked up the first time that happened. I was going home to do the show and I’d wanted to do something as an adult at the Opera House or The Palace or The Lowry for so, so long, and I was absolutely blown away by the reception that we got. That was such a lovely week. It felt really, really special.”
Being back up North with Mind Mangler is a prospect that Sayer is relishing, then. “Oh, I can’t wait to be at The Lowry. It’s going to be awesome.”
Main image by Pamela Raith
The Mind Mangler is currently touring the UK. It plays at The Lowry on March 24-25, 2023. For more information, click here.
Nowhere to Run by Jonathan Sayer will be published by Penguin in August 2023. To pre-order your copy, click here.