It’s safe to say that Mischief Theatre have well and truly earned their place amongst the elite when it comes to comedy, with hit shows ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’, ‘The Comedy about a Bank Robbery’ and ‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’ under their belts as well as a much-loved BBC sitcom ‘The Goes Wrong Show’. If we look back to the lighter days before the dreaded C-Word came into our lives, the team at Mischief were awarded a yearlong residency at the Vaudeville Theatre where they premiered two new works, ‘Magic Goes Wrong’ and ‘Groan Ups’, both of which were met with laughter and great reviews. ‘Magic Goes Wrong’ is now touring the UK until later this year and running at the Apollo Theatre until February 27th with ‘Groan ups’ also hitting the road on its first ever UK Tour.
When you think of Mischief Theatre, you’ll be forgiven for thinking of the disastrous antics of the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society with their collapsing sets, forgotten lines, clashing characters and many incidents that would send an health and safety officer running for the hills, but ‘Groan Ups’ is a step away from that old school slapstick style of comedy and a venture into the world of wordplay, sight gags, true to life emotions and references that anyone who remembers their school days will both understand and be able to laugh at. It follows five class mates; boisterous bundle of energy Spencer (Dharmesh Patel) who feels school isn’t for him, clever Archie (Dan Abbott) who just wants to fit in and keep his dad happy, sharp minded and determined Katie (Lauren Samuels) who dreams of a high flying job, spoiled Moon (Yolanda Ovide) who loves to boss her classmates around and the shy and awkward Simon (Matt Cavendish) who, as the class outcast, struggles to keep up with everyone else.
We see the classmates as six year olds, then as teenagers heading into year 10 then as adults at a class reunion with the script expertly blending comedy with heart, mixing laugh out loud moments with a number of emotional punches as we see the characters get older, adjust to the changes in their lives and come to terms with how decisions made as children could impact their adult lives, all whilst questioning whether we really ever grow up at all.
Each character is well developed, believable and unique, each played brilliantly by the cast with each one showcasing elements within them that we can either recognise in ourselves or those we went to school with. You have your popular kids, the clever ones, the class clowns, and the misfits all vying for attention and their place in the group. Ovide’s Moon is larger than life, the voice of wisdom and advice to her school friends as she tries to help Katie in her relationships whilst trying to keep Simon, who worships the ground she walks on, at bay. Dan Abbot’s precocious Archie is perhaps the emotional core of the play, struggling throughout to work out who he wants to be and pulling at the heartstrings of the audience as he tries to work it all out. Katie, played by Lauren Samuels, encapsulates all of the pressures that many of us faced during our school years, that feeling that we had to get the best possible jobs because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t achieve, the feeling of fitting in whilst reaching goals and, as an adult, the feeling of wondering if we made the right choices.
Some of the biggest laughs of the performance go to Patel’s Spencer and Cavendish’s Simon, two very contrasting characters. One, Spencer, oozing confidence as a child contrasts Simon’s awkward shyness and has the two get older, Simon’s perhaps over trusting self is drawn into being the butt of many jokes much to Spencer’s delight. Even as the classic class clown, as we see Spencer grow, Dharmesh’s acting skill is truly showcased as he learns clowning can’t get him everywhere and he is forced to face up to the truths of how his school life impacted his adulthood. A comedic highlight of the production comes from an ongoing joke involving many hamsters which thanks to Patel’s impeccable timing and over the top expressions has the audiences in stiches. Cavendish’s Simon earned many a cheer and aww throughout as he finds himself the target of teasing and feels compelled to reinvent himself to get others to like him. His act one rap to Shaggy’s ‘It Wasn’t Me’ earned rapturous applause with his act two monologue hitting hard as we learnt that childhood actions have adulthood consequences. Cavendish’s comedic skill is truly showcased as he pushes himself harder and harder to impress Moon and his classmates, with his antics complete with an oversized backpack and a lot of starburst sweets (or are they called Opal Fruits).
Jamie Burkitt and Killian McArdle play two roles each, appearing as teachers in the first act before switching to the roles of Chemise, Simon’s on again, off again girlfriend who he brings along to impress his classmates at the reunion, and Paul, another reunion attendee who has the audience laughing with his every appearance.
Fly Davis’ incredibly clever set design makes the adult cast look smaller as six-year-olds, dwarfed by huge chairs with a switch around coming in later when the now adults tower over the chairs that once towered over them. The set grows up with the cast and it is just all very cleverly done. With songs from the nineties and the noughties playing before the show and during the interval, this is a production full of nostalgia.
Whilst Mischief may be done for their madcap slapstick, ‘Groan Ups’ truly highlights the writing skill of Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields as they both make us laugh whilst picking apart the challenges of growing up and coming face to face with our own insecurities. It’s true to life, we all want to fit in, achieve what we dreamed of as children and find our place in the world and this production showcases all of that by showing us how what happens as children can still matter as adults. Another sign of genius in the writing of this production is the throwbacks to earlier moments with Simon’s monologue pointing out how being the outcast as a kid makes him the way he is as an adult and very similar scenarios happening to them as children and as adults asking the question do we ever grow up? Also, if you are a die-hard Mischief fan like me, you might just notice a couple of gentle nods to the company’s hit show ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ as well as a reference to a character having been in an episode of Holby City, just like an original ‘Groan Ups’ cast member had been.
In conclusion, ‘Groan Ups’ effortlessly switches from laugh out loud to punch in the gut emotions, showcasing the skills of the writers and of the amazing cast. A step away from the normal content that Mischief Theatre provides but one that shows that this company is more than slapstick, they can also do heart. It’s funny, wickedly clever and thoroughly entertaining throughout.
You don’t have long left to catch these big kids on tour, with only three stops left. Check out the upcoming tour locations here https://www.groan-ups.com/venues-tickets
Images found via Google, not my own