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Family classic is played for laughs

Peter Pan Goes Wrong writers Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer tell Jeananne Craig how to pull off a play in the midst of mayhem

A ramshackle cast, giant props, a live audience and TV cameras tracking your every move - what could possibly go wrong? Everything, in the case of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the hit West End play Prince Harry and girlfriend Meghan Markle reportedly went to see this month.

The tongue-in-cheek production, which will be crashing onto your TV screen this Christmas, sees the "Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society" put on their increasingly chaotic, unintentionally hilarious adaptation of the classic family tale.

Before landing its slot in BBC One's festive scheduling, Peter Pan Goes Wrong was a hit play nominated for Best New Comedy at the Olivier Awards.

But despite the cast's experience, it's hard to stifle the giggles when confronted with defective props, wardrobe malfunctions and characters incapable of remembering any lines.

"Sometimes we fail and laugh a little, but not too often," admits co-writer Henry Lewis.

"For the characters, it's not funny, it's a real tragedy. They had hopes for this production, an d it just turns out to be a disaster!"

Fans of Poirot will be delighted to see David Suchet, who played the erstwhile TV detective from 1989-2013, take to the stage in the role of the narrator (minus the manicured moustache).

"You get to see a national treasure jigging like a complete moron!" says Lewis's writing partner, Jonathan Sayer.

"He was so up for everything, so enthusiastic and so game for throwing himself around. He came in with a desire to do as much physical stuff as he could; he kept asking whether he could fall off stuff. He was just a really lovely, professional, giving actor."

Peter Pan Goes Wrong is, as the name suggests, full of surprises. Never more so than when a prop runs amok on stage, and ends up hurtling onto various well-known BBC sets nearby.

We see glimpses of Eggheads (with bemused host Jeremy Vine), BBC News, and, most randomly, Teletubbies.

"We thought it would be fun to crash out of the studio and invade some other programmes. We thought for a long time we wouldn't be able to get those scenes and worried it would be too tricky, but they were very accommodating," says Lewis.

Things couldn't be much worse for the characters on stage, but Lewis and Sayer's Mischief Theatre productions are actually well-oiled machines, with stunt co-ordinators, production managers, circus trainers and risk assessors all on board to ensure things go to plan.

"Inevitably though, it is a bit of a contact sport, so there are a couple of injuries," says Sayer.

They've had a broken foot, dislocated shoulders, knocks to the head, and on one occasion (during a performance of another Mischief show, The Play That Goes Wrong), an upturned punnet of raspberries on the stage.

"The curtain went up and we had to start with raspberries everywhere, in every conceivable space. It was really hard to keep a straight face. By the end, everyone was just dripping with raspberries. The stage manager and costume department were livid." Lewis adds: "After about 15 minutes, the stage became quite slippery. We had to get everything dry-cleaned."

Both writers had their fair share of amateur dramatic forays before penning the show.

"Some of the things we've seen in amateur shows inspire the disaster of it, for sure," says Lewis.

Sayer had one particularly memorable experience, while playing a "sub-Buttons kind of role" in a panto version of Beauty And The Beast, aged 16.

"I remember the magical wizard appeared, but he went too close to the pyrotechnics and it went off and burnt his hand. It was good comedy for the children! Later, when he reappeared, he had a kind of oven mitt bandage."

The pair hope local drama groups will enjoy their loving satire of the genre.

"A lot of am-dram groups come and see the shows. Hopefully they will watch Peter Pan at Christmas and enjoy it," says Lewis. "Because of our love of the world of am-dram, which I think we have a lot of respect for, there's warmth to it at the end," says Sayer.

"The upshot is the actors win, they beat the set. They beat all the obstacles. They finish the play, they all stand there together and take their bow. I think that's a nice, warm Christmas message about endeavour, coming together and looking after each other."

Peter Pan Goes Wrong, BBC One, New Year's Eve, 6.20pm

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