Interview: 'We Couldn't Do It Without Each Other': Rolan Bell and Ross Virgo on Corpsing, Instant Chemistry and Love for THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG

"I think the characters themselves are just perfectly set up in situations that make each one funny for many different reasons within the same situation. I love it all!"

By: Aug. 11, 2023
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Interview: 'We Couldn't Do It Without Each Other': Rolan Bell and Ross Virgo on Corpsing, Instant Chemistry and Love for THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG
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Mischief Comedy's The Play That Goes Wrong has been entertaining audiences since 2012. BroadwayWorld UK spoke with Rolan Bell and Ross Virgo about what it’s been like to be a part of such a wildly successful production since their first performances several months ago.

We discussed what it's been like to be in a play within a play, what audience reactions have been like, and even which character they would love to perform as for one night only!

How did you first get involved with The Play That Goes Wrong?

Ross: We auditioned, I suppose! [Laughs] I'd worked with Mischief once before on A Comedy About A Bank Robbery. I was an understudy for the tour and what ended up being the last West End cast in that show. And I'd auditioned for a couple of their other shows subsequently. But this was the first one that I got the positive news at the very end of it!  But they're a lovely, a lovely company to audition for, particularly for Sooki McShane and Lucy Jenkins, who cast their shows. They're really warm and encouraging. So the audition process for this one was quite long. It was quite a selection process, but we were made to be put at ease by Sooki and Lucy, which made it a lot easier to bear.

What made it a longer audition process than normal?

Rolan: Basically, the audition process was about a week long in total. Usually, you can have a recall process, you might do one or two, and even if it is longer than that, it might be drawn out over time. But with this one, we call it a boot camp style audition process that preps you for what is possibly coming your way if you are to get the role. I think I could speak for us when I say we were falling in love with the show more and more as the audition process went on, and it made you just more eager to get the role. But then at the same time, it made it more nerve-wracking because disappointment would hurt 10 times more. But fortunately for us,

The Play That Goes Wrong
Ross Virgo & Rolan Bell
Photo Credit: Robert Day

we're here today talking to you about the show and still loving it!

Ross: On that, in my very, very first round, Elliot Goodhill, who's one of our wonderful understudies, was in the slot right before me. And we did a little bit of small talk as you do, a little bit of you know, “Hi,” “Best of luck,” “Break a leg.” And then I kept seeing him at every subsequent round. In my mind, I thought, “Okay, this is probably a good sign! I'm going to take Elliot as a good luck charm and assume that if he's there, and I'm there, because I thought he was great, this is probably a good thing!” And so actually, on the day when we came in to do the social media cast video, we recorded that, and Elliot and Rolan were the first people that I saw in the auditorium and it was so great to be like, “Oh my God, we all made it! This is lovely!” [Laughs]

What made you want to be involved with the show?

Rolan: For me, I had never actually seen The Play That Goes Wrong. It was one on the list that I was always like, “I'm gonna go see that one day,” and it just never happened. Comedy is something I've always loved and wanted to explore more and basically do more! But like we were saying, within the audition process,  I just grew a much greater respect for it as the days went on.

When I did read the script initially before the auditions. I remember thinking, “This is great.” It really did fly off the page and you could see the chaos as you're reading it. When you find yourself laughing along to what you're reading, you know you're onto something, so I was eager to get in and hopefully jump on board. That feeling, like Ross was saying, seeing other auditionees doing their thing, doing improv, and showcasing so much talent does make you feel in one way like, “Wow I've got to be on my game here!” But at the same time, you're thoroughly entertained by what you're seeing. It's just really refreshing going into a room and being overwhelmed with how funny the piece is, how friendly the company is and your potential colleagues, and feeling a sense of family before you know anyone's last name! This is just like instant chemistry, love at first read, and I’m happily married now!


Ross: I suppose at the other end of the spectrum, I had seen The Play That Goes Wrong before - I think I'd seen it four times - And I'd done a Mischief show before so I'd already been bitten by the “Mischief Bug,” if you will. And having had that experience in the show before as an understudy, I thought “If you could get a chance to be in the OG Mischief show, which has been running in the West End for so long, that'd be great to be a part of!” And so the second that I had even the remotest sniff of being able to audition for it, straightaway I said, “I don't care who I play and I don't care what the role is. I want in! I will do anything and everything.” And fortunately, it worked out well!

What has it been like playing two different characters in this play within a play?

Rolan: It's a very interesting thing to explore, putting layers upon layers upon layers, in a way. It's so well thought out within the writing and the depth that's behind it all this is so well done that it does afford you the luxury of play within the rehearsal process and coming up with your own idea of what your character may be, what their backstory is . . . And that was one of the things I did love within rehearsals was that freedom we were granted. Especially with something that's been running so long where they could just say, “You know what? This works, so let’s just stick to that.” They take a chance on everyone whether you are a principal, understudy, whatever - Everyone gets a chance to bring what they would like. It being something that can be made to your own creativity or imagination makes it slightly easier to find the truth within who is the character playing a character and finding the fun within that.

Of course, there is obviously a structure set out, but the rehearsal process is so good that by the time you get to state all by the time you’ve really warmed up within the run, it's not so much something you need to think about anymore.

But the chaotic situation’s so bad for the characters playing the characters, but it's a great deal of fun, doing it and getting reactions for what the Haversham Manor character gets, versus the character playing the character and things like that. The dynamics of that is so lovely to play with and experience.

The Play That Goes Wrong
Luke Dayhill, Keith Ramsay,
Rolan Bell, Ross Virgo, Lucy Doyle
Photo Credit: Robert Day

Ross: I think it's a really enjoyable challenge to constantly toe this line between the two. I know for someone like the character I play, Max, versus the character Rolan plays, Robert. Robert is one of the high status characters in the show and takes the show very, very, very seriously along with the craft of acting, which he would inevitably talk to you at length about. [Laughs] And that's not to say that Max doesn't, but it's very much his first time ever on stage.

The thing that I've been talking to our resident director, Amy Milburn, about a lot recently is that Max, I don't think he is inherently a bad actor. And I think he could be quite a good actor. The problem is he's very easily impressionable! And second, he sees something happening that he doesn't expect - It's either terrifying or very, very interesting and something nice to play with. Sometimes that's to his credit, because I think he really does help solve a lot of problems the characters are presented with, particularly in the scene that Rolan and I have, a very simple dialogue scene becomes thwarted a little bit by the set. And it's nice to try and solve that problem together every night because we couldn't do it without each other. So that is a nice dynamic to play, whilst also being constantly aware of something that we spoke about in rehearsal, which is the constraint of the audience. What boundary can we push? What do we have to try and commit to? Of course, ultimately, that inevitably falls down by the very end of the show, but how long can we keep that constraint going forward?

Do you have a preference for playing either the Cornley character or your Haversham Manor character?

Ross: I do! [Laughs] In my mind, Cecil Haversham reads as a bit of a cad, a bit of a rogue and a rapscallion! Which is someone who I traditionally would not often be cast as - I have been! But obviously, then viewing that through Max's lens, I think Max thinks, “Oh, God, this is a really juicy part!” And I think Max genuinely loves The Murder at Haversham Manor. I think he thinks it's a fantastic play, really nuanced, and there's big reveals, and there's a big twist at the end! So I think viewing the character of Cecil through Max's eyes is a real treat.

Rolan: Likewise, I probably prefer playing the actor who takes acting really seriously. Because it's just a great premise for things to go wrong! He just wants everything to work and he believes, in his heart, that he is the bee's knees. It's just really funny to me. Ross and I share a dressing room and I make those kind of jokes all the time. Sometimes Ross is like, “I can't tell if this is Rolan or if this is the character!” 


Rolan: I just enjoy toeing that line. It's fun. I love it all! One wouldn't work without the other, you know? I think the characters themselves are just perfectly set up in situations that make each one funny for many different reasons within the same situation. I love it all.

If you could play any other character in the show for one night, who would it be and why?

Rolan: For me, it might actually be Max! There's just so much going on with the character. Credit to Ross with how he delivers it all, but there are certain moments where I get to just sit back and watch a little bit on stage for legit reasons. And there are things that just make me laugh time and time again, or even have moments where he was saying a line, and it's very subtle, but it can make me corpse a little bit and come out of doing what I'm supposed to be doing! I try to conceal that, of course, but when we get offstage and I'll say “Ross, when you say it like that, I don't know why today, it just made me laugh so much!” And there are so many of those moments, even just a lot of unspoken things. [Laughs] No pressure to say you'd want to play my character or anything like that! 

The Play That Goes Wrong
Rolan Bell & Ross Virgo in rehearsal
Photo Credit: Danny Kaan

Ross: That’s genuinely an interesting suggestion that you make there Ronan, because my gut instinct was to go the other end of the spectrum. In rehearsal, we spoke a lot about two forms of clown - Auguste and naive. But generally, in broad brushstrokes, Auguste clowns being high status, very, very direct, and focused, and taking everything very seriously. Naive, obviously, other end of the spectrum. So, Robert, Chris, Sandra, probably at the Auguste end, and Dennis and Max, particularly, at the other end. I do think it would be lovely to explore the show from the opposite end of the scale. I would probably never be cast as a Robert so maybe that is why Robert would be a lovely character to explore - This incredibly bombastic and strong-willed presence on stage would be really really, really fun. That or perhaps Chris, because I love Fawlty Towers and I think Chris is a very close reference point to something like a John Cleese or Basil Fawlty. 

What do you hope audiences take away from The Play That Goes Wrong?

Ross: I think it would be for them to take away a feeling of escape. Without getting too heavy or deep about it, I think it's lovely that we can bring people into the theatre. I think this is part of something that Mischief prides themselves on. I think they call it ridiculous escapism, this idea of being able to come in and forget about the outside world for a couple of hours and just enjoy some silliness, some mischief. So if you can take that away from the evening, when you're leaving, you think, “You know what? I had a really good time this evening. I really enjoyed myself. I laughed like I haven't laughed before”.

Rolan: [Laughs] Yeah, I think that's exactly it. I think you said it perfectly. People leaving with that sense of never laughing like that before or in such a long time. It's a great feeling, knowing that you are sending people home with that experience. The beauty of that as well is genuinely being able to enjoy performing it and feeling that whilst on the stage too, and sharing that sense of joy and happiness with audiences. 

It's just that thing of having some people that have a very funny laugh and then they can't contain themselves and they laugh when no one else is because they laugh longer than other people do. Like they just keep giggling, and then they’re giggling at the fact that they're giggling, and people start laughing at the fact that they're laughing, us on stage, someone might say something! Like for example, someone sneezes and you might go “Oh, bless you” just breaking character and it's those live moments, those kinds of things . . . It's hard to describe how warm and nice and pleasant that feeling is. 

And finally, how would you describe The Play That Goes Wrong in one word?

Rolan: I'm gonna go with unforgettable.

Ross: I'm gonna go for . . . Chaotic

Rolan: Unforgettably chaotic. [Laughs]

The new slogan!

The Play That Goes Wrong is currently playing at the Duchess Theatre. The running time is 2 hours including an interval and the age recommendation is 8+.