Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
The Lowry, Salford
Mischief Theatre has built an enviable reputation based upon hilarious stunt-filled, slapstick tributes to amateur theatre and Christmas pantos. Groan Ups, written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, moves the company outside their comfort zone towards a different, one might say more mature, style.
Five children meet in infant school in 1994. Friendships are formed and personalities start to develop. By their teenage years, when we meet them again, hormones and ambitions are pushing the characters in different directions. In adulthood, when they re-group at a school reunion, they are very different than might have been expected at the beginning—but have they really changed from when they were children?
Moving away from slapstick towards an observational style of comedy is not just a matter of toning down the physical humour. For pathos to develop, we must sympathise with, rather than just laugh at, the characters. Yet the characters in Groan Ups remain broad types (swot, pushy princess, closeted gay, hyperactive and outsider) and not fully-realised people. As a result, their relationships and development are not fully convincing. When two of the characters are revealed as married in the third act, it is clearly intended as a surprise, but the shock is due to it being hard to believe based on earlier events.
Indications the play is shifting towards a more serious tone—the second act ends on an act of betrayal—are not realised. The third act is staged as a classic farce with characters rushing on and off stage and accidents mounting up. The authors are not completely comfortable with the dramatic aspects of the play. The outsider of the group is, if not bullied, certainly the butt of practical jokes, but no-one expresses regret over their behaviour and he is treated as comic relief. The comedy of embarrassment—meeting up with an old friend who has not prospered or behaves pretentiously—is not pursued.
If Groan Ups is not completely successful as a comedy-drama, it is still very funny. Gags in the first act are based on the children’s efforts to understand events going on around them, including a parent having an affair with his cleaner. Their efforts to make sense of the grown-up world in which they find themselves is emphasised by Fly Davis’s set. The exaggerated size of props makes the classroom an alien environment in which the cast strain to reach, or swing on, door handles or perch on massive chairs. By the third act, the cast tower over the props; mature in body if not mind.
The show is so stuffed with gags, the third act is almost stolen by two secondary characters. Jamie Birkett, as a supposed Frenchwoman with a strong Geordie accent and an inability to vary the tone of her voice, and Killian Macardle, trying desperately to re-ignite his school glory days, are hilarious.
Groan Ups may not achieve its high aspirations but is very funny and a demonstration of Mischief Theatre’s determination to continue to progress artistically and not to rest on their laurels.
Reviewer: David Cunningham