Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward, performed by Mischief Theatre Company
Growing up, we’ve all had to do it. The innoncence of childhood, the awkwardness of adolescence and eventually the dreaded high school reunion, the social competition of adequacy and inadequacy. Are we the same person at 30 as we were at the age of 13? Do we ever really move on from our school personas? These are the questions that the parents of the The Play That Goes Wrong aim to tackle in their brand-new comedy all about growing up. Featuring the original company of Mischief Theatre, they are back on the West End in their residency at the Vaudeville Theatre with their first new play since 2016.
I make no effort in hiding my sheer childish love for Mischief Theatre Company and all their products that are pumped out from this merry band of misfits. So imagine my joy when I was able to catch their latest production Groan Ups before leaving the UK!
A step back from their “Goes Wrong” successes, Groan Ups ventures into a more *ahem* grown up approach to comedy that plays more straight than their previous play A Comedy About A Bank Robbery. Here, the writing is more witty, sometimes becoming very political and comments a lot about how we value our childhood and adolescence through social commentary; there is also a tactical manouever to tap into the newfound goldmine of nostalgia.
Groan Ups follows the lives of five characters from childhood, through to adolescence and then their lives at 30; the domineering priviledged and appropriately named Moon (Nancy Zamit), in-the-closet Archie (Henry Shields), childish and loveable bufoon Spencer (Henry Lewis), stress head and natural leader Katie (Charlie Russell) and the bullied, picked upon and all around dorky Simon (originally played by Jonathan Sayer, tonight played by George Haynes).
The cleverly designed set is used effectively throughout the three act play to distort the sizes of the actors on stage. Harnessing the old French style of theatre, Child Bouffon, the adults play six year old children, allowing them to say all manner of things that in an older body would be deemed offensive (“My daddy says Archie’s Mum is a bit far gone, but he still would” chimes Russell’s Katie). It’s a clever trope to bring in some political and social humour through childish wordplay.
Although the Bouffon does wear itself thin rather quickly, what the first act serves as is a seed planting for jokes that pay off later down the track – a joke involving the classroom hamster gains consistent laughs.
As the play progresses the character’s relationships become more intertwined and much more real, allowing time to flesh out characters, something that isn’t so much focused on in Mischief’s other plays. Whether it’s the class clown Spencer secretly hiding his academic desires, Archie’s lifelong and ultimately disastrous struggle to hide his sexuality, or Archie and Katie’s eventual heartbreak after the culmination of secrets explodes in act three, after seeing them “grow up” you can’t help but invest in their future.
The challenge that the company have given themselves by pulling back on their old gags and instead delivering a more adult sense of pathos into their work has clearly paid off .
As an audience member, you also can’t help but writhe as you see resemblances of your own childhood play out before you; playing a game of spin the bottle, truth or dare, thinking your high school band was going to make it to the big leagues, overly stressing about GCSE exams, the list goes on.
The writing by Shield, Lewis and Sayer is extremely witty and tongue in cheek as it plays upon our nostalgia. Simon taking a “self photo” on an old Kodak and being ridiculed is quite on the nose and recieves big laughs.
Eventually it all culminates in the dreaded high school reunion. The one we all will eventually have to face and enter that dreaded game of who won at life?
The comedy and gags in Groan Ups are perhaps more directed at those raised in the 90’s or 00’s, with a soundtrack of absolute banger tunes to boot, so it may seem that a few references won’t be recieved as well by those outside of this generation. However, the challenge that the company have given themselves by pulling back on their old gags and instead delivering a more adult sense of pathos into their work has clearly paid off as you see these fleshed out characters become alive on stage; particularly with Russell’s Katie who more or less steals the show in the third act.
Arguably, the third act in Groan Ups is by far the strongest, harnessing and releasing their now famous brand of farcical humour upon the audience as we see old tropes start to reimerge, secrets collide and new characters cleverly introduced at the final stage all mix well and serve to remind us why Mischief Theatre are at the top of what they do.
Stin’s Final Thought: My high school reunion is going to fall next year and my only thought is, if you’re going to hire an actress called Chemise, please remember it’s French for “shirt”.
Groan Ups is now playing at the Vaudevill Theatre on the West End.
The Play That Goes Wrong is currently playing at the Duchess Theatre on the West End and currently on tour in the USA.
A Comedy About A Bank Robbery is currently playing at the Criterion Theatre on the West End.
Magic Goes Wrong will open at the Vaudevill Theatre in December 2019.
Tickets for all shows can be found on the link below.