The Play That Goes Wrong - London

Henry Lewis' slapstick comedy!

Nancy Wallinger on Why Flipping Out & Smashing Things in London’s The Play That Goes Wrong Keeps Her Sane

The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess Theatre contains lots of men behaving badly—or, at least clumsily—but the Olivier-nominated hit comedy owes much of its success to the two women in its cast, starting with Nancy Wallinger as Annie Twilloil, the stage manager who is attempting to keep calm even as everything is quite literally collapsing around her. caught up with the delightful star in the run-up to Sunday’s Olivier ceremony, about which this awards season neophyte was quite rightly very excited.

What is it like to be one of two women in a company with so many men?
It does seem like we are kind of bloke-heavy, but that’s not an intentional choice. It’s more that the silly slapstick thing was just probably more suited to a lot of guys we know. The two women’s parts are so strong that it never feels like there’s a lack of male characters within the show as we’re performing it; we never feel secondary.

You’re one of the few in the play-within-the-play who isn’t playing an actor.
That’s right. Annie [Twilloil, her character] isn’t an actress and has never wanted to be an actress. She doesn’t wish to be onstage; she wants to be behind the scenes, which is why she’s chosen to be a stage manager. But what happens, of course, is that she ends up totally in the limelight and then realizes that she absolutely wants to be there and when that gets threatened, she completely flips out. It’s a massive journey to act, which is just so much fun.

What is it like getting to interact with the audience before each performance?
I have half an hour before anything starts where I get to know the audience as they trickle into the theater, and what’s been interesting. Sometimes you think you know the audience is going to be a certain way and they are or they’re not. It’s taught me that you’re never going to know how a certain group of people are going to react.

You’ve done the show more than 600 times—how do you keep up your energy?
I think I’m actually one of the people in the cast who gets bored of it the least. It’s such a fantastic show to react with the audience and because we’re a group of improvisers who started off in that world, we’re always looking to play with things that happen in the moment. If someone has a particularly funny laugh, for instance, that will be picked up on, and because it’s a different set of people seeing the show every night, that in itself keeps it fresh.

You’re playing a stage manager—were you ever one yourself?
Not at all. I did a brief stint producing music videos and was a make-up artist for a while so I’ve been in the crew section of productions but I have never stage managed. But I have heard from a couple of people that they have recognized the character I play so I don’t think she’s too heightened or too drastic; it’s just that she’s completely useless—but very charming hopefully [laughs].

What’s especially great about your production is that all the cast seem so genuinely fond of the people they’re playing.
I think you have to be if you’re going to play something that much. And when the boys [Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis, and Henry Shields] were writing the show, all of the parts were written for the people playing them, so if I wasn’t fond of the part these guys had written for me and that I had developed, I would be a complete idiot.

What is it that you most love about Annie?
That she’s so naïve at the start and then I love her rage and the fact that I get to smash things up every night. This journey I get to go keeps me very sane—no need for therapy here [laughs]!

How do you keep a piece called The Play That Goes Wrong from actually going wrong, given the potential for physical mishaps?
We rehearse each scene thoroughly so that if anything hurts even once, you change the choreography; everything is incredibly safe. I did miss the first three months of the tour because I broke my foot doing some off-balance dancing, so when we do get hurt it is dangerous. But mostly, it’s just a lot of bruises, really. You’ve got to be pretty tough to do a show like this because we really do throw our bodies around, the idea being that if it looks safe, then the audience won’t buy it; they won’t laugh.

And now you guys are up for an Olivier for Best Comedy: how does that feel?
We’d heard a lot of talk about it but nobody expected to get the nomination—it’s absolutely insane, I didn’t believe it at all. I remember us joking about going to the Oliviers but we were really joking and when we found out we had actually been nominated, I cried pretty much for a day and then got completely drunk and cried some more.

The nomination is another notch up the ladder for this little show that could!
I know, right? We started in a 60-seat pub theater and then the 100-seat Trafalgar Studios and then Edinburgh and then the tour. It just gives you a real faith in theater at the moment and a lot of the people we’ve spoken to graduating from drama school can now see that it is possible to bring a small show to a big place and that if you dream big it will happen, with a lot of luck and the right people.

Is the cast busily sorting out their outfits for the big night?
We’re not at all flashy people so we don’t know about that kind of world and for all of us to be at an awards ceremony at all is kind of hilarious. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the boys all dolled up and the girls in dresses.

The cast is going to start changing later this year. What are your plans?
This is our baby and we’ve worked so hard to get here, and we’re shocked by the fact that we are here every day, so I for one don’t intend to leave anytime soon. At the same time, I’m 26 now and you don’t want to be 35 and find that you’re still playing the stage manager you started doing when you were 24. So we’ll see [laughs].