Award-winning actor and writer Henry Shields talks to essence ahead of his busy autumn schedule which includes a lead role in a new BBC One primetime comedy series in association with Lionsgate The Goes Wrong Show.
Photo copyright: Joseph Sinclair
Q Henry, you grew up in Hastings, do you ever go back to your home town?
A Yes! I love Hastings, and my family still live there, so I visit as much as I can (sadly not very often) and unwind by the sea.
Q Do you recall as a child wanting and being able to make people laugh?
A I was one of those annoying kids who memorised jokes from books. I was a tedious child, but it’s the only way to learn how to write your own.
Q Who were your comedy icons growing up?
A Monty Python were a huge influence, as was Graham Linehan. I’d love to say Stewart Lee was an influence, but my work is nothing like his, so I guess I’m just a massive fan.
Q Some of the most popular competitions essence has had have been for The Mischief Company’s plays. What’s been the inspiration for them?
A For the Goes Wrong plays the big influences were Michael Green’s coarse acting plays, Chaplin and Keaton, and traditional commedia dell’arte archetypes. For The Comedy About A Bank Robbery we looked to other sources for inspiration like the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello and historic melodrama theatre.
Quick fiveFavourite film? Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Dog or cat? Dog. But only big dogs. Small dogs are just big cats.
Guilty pleasure? Gaming. But I don’t feel guilty about it. I’m a proud nerd.
Main inspiration? Terry Pratchett.
Glass half full or half empty? Empty. We’re all doomed.
Q There hasn’t been a lot that has gone wrong for the plays has there? Did you expect to be an Olivier award winner?
A Never! My goal when we set out was to keep myself in acting work and to one day quit bartending. So the Olivier came as a bit of a surprise. And any day now I’ll quit that bartending job.
Q What was the most embarrassing thing to happen on stage?
A There are too many to count, but probably when I got confused in a performance of Bank Robbery and confidently started the wrong scene twenty minutes early. The audience kind of went with it and seemed to think it was a sort of avant-garde twist.
Q You co-write the plays with Jonathan (Sayer) and Henry (Lewis) – what’s the process for this and has it changed over the years?
A I wish it was more impressive, but really we just sit in a room with a laptop and try to make each other laugh. The good stuff gets written down; the bad stuff is politely ignored. The only difference now is we write in an office instead of squeezed together in a tiny living room at 1am after work.
Photo copyright: Joseph Sinclair
Henry ShieldsHenry Shields is best known for his work with the highly-renowned Mischief Theatre Company who he joined in 2009, co-writing and appearing in its hit international productions of: The Play That Goes Wrong (winner 2015 Olivier Award and WhatsOnStage Award for Best New Comedy); Peter Pan Goes Wrong (writer/actor, 2016 Olivier Award nominee for Best New Comedy); The Comedy About A Bank Robbery (actor/writer, 2017 Olivier Award nominee Best New Comedy); Mischief Movie Night (actor, 2018 Olivier Award nominee for Best New Comedy); The Nativity Goes Wrong (writer); Mischief Move Night (UK Tour, 2018) and BBC’s Christmas Carol Goes Wrong and The Goes Wrong Show.
Q You play the straight man in the plays. What’s that like to do, and is it something that comes naturally?
A It can be a bit draining at times, watching everyone else have all the fun, but you have to see yourself as part of the show as a whole and I like to think my instinct has always been to serve the show, not my own ego. If actors focus too much on their own role and the laughs they get then the fabric of the play can fall apart around them. Plus, the straight man gets way more lines, so who cares?
Q How did you feel when J.J. Abrams first told you he wanted to bring The Play that Goes Wrong to New York? Did Broadway seem inevitable after the Olivier win?
A Excited at first, then sceptical a few months later, then certain it wouldn’t happen a few months after that. When it finally did happen I’d given up hope, so it was a lovely surprise! Inevitable would, I think, be the wrong word.
Q Do you feel laughter is always the best medicine?
A As a man who has been in hospital a few times I can say with certainty that medicine is the best medicine. But laughter helps it go down.
Q Do you pay much attention to social media or any production’s ratings?
A Sort of. Comedy is all about back and forth with the audience so you can’t afford to ignore them, and I think it pays to have an eye on the public’s reaction. That said I usually ignore them. Unless it’s a compliment.
Q What’s the question you never get asked but would like to be?
A Would you like to discuss medieval military strategy at length?
Q What are you currently working on?
A Three new plays opening on the West End over the next year, and a dozen scripts for tv shows, films and a musical that I’ll get on with one day.
BBC One primetime comedy series in association with Lionsgate The Goes Wrong Show is a spin-off of the successful international theatre hit production of The Play That Goes Wrong. Henry has also co-written and will appear in two new Mischief Theatre productions: Groan Ups and Magic Goes Wrong co-created by the legendary Penn & Teller, both at London’s Vaudeville Theatre.
The Goes Wrong Show BBC One, autumn/winter 2019.
Groan Ups, Vaudeville Theatre London, from 20 September 2019.
Magic Goes Wrong, Vaudeville Theatre London, from 14 December 2019.