Arts / When everything that can go wrong does

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Director of “The Play that Goes Wrong” and actor Luke Joslin (in the checked waistcoat)… “That’s the beauty of it, no one knows much about it, it’s not a TV program, it comes fresh.” Photo by Jeff Busby
AT age 37 and with a swag of directorial credits behind him, Luke Joslin reckons he can safely call himself a director – but it’s far more lucrative to be an actor.

He’ll be here soon acting in the very silly West End hit “The Play that Goes Wrong”, described as “Fawlty Towers” meets “Noises Off”.

Written by Mischief Theatre members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields (who also wrote a follow-up, “Peter Pan Goes Wrong”), it’s also been filmed for BBC 1 with David Suchet in a lead role.

Joslin knows both sides of theatre. He’s directed Giggle and Hoot and Friends”, “Educating Rita” andAnnieto name a few. His performance in “Avenue Q” won him both a Helpmann and a Green Room Award, he’s been in the musicals “Dirty Dancing”,“Guys and Dolls” and “Georgy Girl”, but also played Pinocchio for Windmill Theatre and the Sydney Theatre Company and Andy in “The 13-Storey Treehouse”.

“I went to a ‘Mamma Mia’ audition this morning,” he tells “CityNews” by phone from Sydney. For every 30 to 40 actor jobs, he says, there’s just one director’s job – “ it’s very hard to crack in Australia”. Worse, the worlds of directing musicals and straight theatre rarely crossover, with only Simon Phillips, the director of “Ladies in Black”, doing it successfully.

The Play that Goes Wrong”. Photo by Jeff Busby

Joslin describes the big imported musicals as “commercial juggernauts, usually an international director comes attached to the project – very rarely do you get an Aussie heading up the show”.

“The Play that Goes Wrong,” comes out of the West End, so there’s a production team attached to it. “Being in a commercial play is different and it comes with a set of challenges,” he says.

One of those challenges is the sheer Britishness of the play, although unlike “Yes, Prime Minister” or “Fawlty Towers” it’s not a replication of a TV show.

“That’s the beauty of it, no one knows much about it, it’s not a TV program, it comes fresh,” he says.

Joslin gets to play Robert, the seasoned actor who thinks he’s Laurence Olivier, as the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society attempts to put on a 1920s murder mystery, but everything that can go wrong… does, and that’s the difficulty of acting in it when you’re a professional.

When UK director Mark Bell was here for auditions, he described the actors, Joslin among them, as “an ‘interesting’ and possibly incompetent bunch of would-be thespians,” adding: “If their auditions are anything to go by, this cast is going to be hopelessly hilarious”.

Joslin agrees it’s a joke, the main joke in the play, but you could be excused for feeling sensitive if an overseas director has such fun saying how hopeless the actors are.

And then in Melbourne, one writer attacked the show, calling it a slap in the face for all the amateur companies in Australia.

But as Joslin says: “Every theatrically-minded person knows that things can go wrong very badly, it’s not a comment on amateur societies.”

So how to get the balance right?

“It has to be done very well,” he says.

The Play that Goes Wrong”. Photo by Jeff Busby

“Every cast member in the murder mystery has different levels of experience and in our characters we’re forever trying to do the play as best we can… but for me, as an actor, that’s really tricky, like trying to sing out of tune.”

Sometimes, proving the premise of the whole play is correct, they get it wrong. During technical rehearsal week, for instance, they made the fatal error of overdoing it so the director told them upfront: “If you actors start commenting on what you’re doing by ‘flagging’ jokes and giving knowing looks, the show dies a miserable death.”

His character Robert plays Thomas in the whodunit Murder at Haversham Manor”.

“I know this guy, he sees himself as THE actor,” he says, but it’s a fine line making it credible.

“We try to keep the balls in the air with as much dignity as possible,” Joslin says.

“The Play that Goes Wrong”, Canberra Theatre, April 25-30. Bookings to or 6275 2700.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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