Rik’s Comedy Of Errors

This is the story of how Rik Mayall accidentally broke Jon Plowman’s arm while throwing him in to a swimming pool.

But we’ll get back to that.

The Oxford And Cambridge Shakespeare Company was the brainchild of, among others, Jonathan Miller. The company staged Shakespeare productions, which toured the UK and the the USA. In 1978, the play they chose to perform and tour was The Comedy Of Errors. It was directed by Peter Farago and Jon Plowman, the latter of whom would later go on to produce any good BBC comedy you may have ever seen from the 1980s onwards.

Among the cast of Oxbridge types was also one Rik Mayall, recruited via the National Student Drama Festival in York. He played Dromio of Syracuse.

Using newspaper reviews from the time, we can track the trajectory of the production, and get an insight into how it was being received. In The Stage, from Thursday 10th August 1978, we get the following from Denis Downes.

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS … opened at the Uppingham Theatre, Leicestershire, at the start of a tour which will take in several provincial cities and then go to the United States. It has all the colour of a Persian Market, the sophistication of Noel Coward’s finest and the slapstick science of Mack Sennett … Rik Mayall, Dawn Ellis and Adrienne Thomas must be praised in a cast of exceptional talent.

The Stage

By the 29th of August, the play had reached Coventry.

There’s an art to being unpretentious, and the trouble with this raucous adaptation … is that it hasn’t found the knack … Though the vigour and enthusiasm of the company demand praise, they miss the finer touches of sophistication … The right notes aren’t far away, you can enjoy them … But not in the grotesque clowning of Rik Mayall.

Peter McGarry, The Coventry Evening Telegraph

The show arrived in Reading at the beginning of September.

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Reading Evening Post

Later, the company flew to New York, and rented a bus to get them to Berkeley in California. It was at a stop-over in a Texas town called Nacogdoches that the accident happened. Plowman recalls casting Rik for the play:

He was brilliant upon first meeting. A combination of nervous energy and ferocious comic ability, a must-have even then. Onstage, he fascinated both the eye and the mind, and invented comic business as though he’d been doing it for years … He was also irritatingly good-looking.

Jon Plowman, How To Produce Comedy Bronze

It was at this point that Plowman was due to leave the company, in order to go and work back in the UK for the Arts Council. So, at their motel, the cast decided to bid him farewell by chucking him in the pool. Very Hi-De-Hi. Halfway through the build-up swings, Plowman’s arm came lose, and planted on the ground while his other one just … snapped.

Irritatingly good-looking.
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