Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Mischief Theatre, the company behind the perennially popular The Play That Goes Wrong, has taken up residency at the Vaudeville Theatre promising at least two new shows and probably more.
Although it has been written by the usual team of Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, Groan Ups is something of a departure. It is certainly not a “goes wrong” show, although the evening does benefit from the trio’s trademark ability to hit a funny bone with effortless alacrity.
The tale follows five youngsters at Bloomfield Comprehensive School from the age of around six in 1994 to early teen days seven years later and eventually, after the interval in the running time of just under 2½ hours, a class reunion in the present day.
Set designer Fly Davis has great fun recreating a classroom, especially in the first act when something is well out of proportion, though it could as easily be the actor-children's their natural habitat.
The quintet is packed with characters, each almost archetypal. Henry Lewis is a delight as Spencer, the harmless, brainless boy who is destined for failure from an early age. Jonathan Sayer is squeaky cry baby Simon, equally unlikely to mature into anything noticeable, while Henry Shields portrays sly Archie, a calm, brainy boy with hidden passions that aren’t always that well disguised.
The girls are represented by Nancy Zamit deliciously playing spoilt Moon and Charlie Russell in the role of Katie, the shy, sensible member of the party and always the one most likely to succeed.
The company does a good job of depicting the ups and downs of life at six. This period also proves to be a foundation for the later action. By 13/14, characters that were already showing signs of solidifying have inevitably developed but almost always for the worse.
Now, the kind of love that lasts for a few weeks is in the air, while exam hysteria often seems far more significant. In fact, that proves to be the case when a little subterfuge leads to unexpected consequences that only manifest themselves to full fruition a decade and a half later.
Although it may not have been entirely intended, the final act turns into something close to farce mixed with pathos. The funny moments are often hilarious, as one has come to expect from this company. Running gags involving hamsters and Briony Corrigan’s gorgeous “French girlfriend” play out perfectly, as does a bravura cameo from Dave Hearn, playing lost walrus Paul.
Ironically, Groan Ups works best as a broad comedy that turns into farce rather than the serious drama exploring the way that character is developed early and can never be escaped, however much one might try.
This opening play in the Mischief Vaudeville Season can be thought-provoking although the more serious elements are not always fully realised and sometimes struggle to compete successfully against a wonderful array of gags. On the plus side, the comedy should guarantee that this company’s ever-increasing band of fans will keep the box office busy.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher