The past decade has seen the arrival, and extraordinary rise, of a British theatre phenomenon in the form of Mischief Theatre from pub theatre to global domination.
The company landed in the West End with its transfer of The Play That Goes Wrong from the fringe five years ago. It has made a global franchise out of comedy mishaps on stage and by December, it’ll have as many shows running in London as Cameron Mackintosh.
The Comedy About a Bank Robbery also continues its run in Theatreland. Last week, Mischief opened Groan Ups at the Vaudeville Theatre. The company’s success has also seen it afforded a year-long West End residency at that theatre.
Groan Ups is the first of their three premieres to play this year. However, the critical reaction to it has been lukewarm, receiving mostly two and three-star notices in the national press.
As today’s leading West End comedy theatre company, this could raise the question of whether Mischief Theatre is becoming a victim of its own success.
Theatre, as well as comedy, is all about timing. Mischief’s arrival in the West End with The Play That Goes Wrong happened at a time when farces by esteemed writers such as Brian Rix, Marc Camoletti and Ray Cooney were no longer playing its stages.
Today, mention those playwrights to anyone under 40 and you’ll likely be met with blank looks. Here’s where Mischief successfully filled the gap: it bridged two eras, building a market share and a new audience.
It used a successful old-school producing model: by spotting a gap in the market. The Woman in Black did this in 1989, when the lack of a decent thriller in the West End meant it found traction – and the rest is history.
Placement also plays an equally big part. The Fortune Theatre is a stone’s throw from Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which gave The Woman in Black over-spill of would-be audiences for Miss Saigon in its early years – those who were unable to get a ticket to the hit musical but still wanted to see a show that evening.
Similarly, The Play That Goes Wrong is at the intimate Duchess Theatre, just down the street from Theatre Royal Drury Lane, so picking up on audiences from there as well as the Aldwych and Novello Theatres.
A Comedy About a Bank Robbery sits at the Criterion Theatre on Piccadilly Circus, an ideal location for passing trade and attracting the all-important tourist ticket. Previously, farces such as Cooney’s Run for Your Wife and Camoletti’s Don’t Dress for Dinner used a similar placement model and both became long-running hits.
Mischief’s Goes Wrong brand has established itself as a safe choice for an enjoyable family night out – it’s successfully tapped into middle-England ticket buyers and delivers exactly what it says on the tin.
Today, farce as an art form can often earn swift dismissal and derision. But that’s to do it significant disservice. If you do not know the work of a skilled farce writer such as Cooney, I encourage you to go and read one of his plays for the sheer masterclass they afford in structure and plotting.
In truth, The Play That Goes Wrong exudes bundles of charm but feels less sophisticated in terms of play-craft beside these earlier works. Its own arrival in the West End happened at the right moment, with nothing similar to compare it with. However, any weaknesses are highlighted beside the recent West End revival of Michael Frayn’s 1982 comedy Noises Off, which takes its influence from great farce writing before it.
Frayn’s comedy is frequently described as the funniest play ever written. It is certainly a crafted work of genius that succeeds in bypassing the snobbish attitude some theatregoers hold towards farce as an art form.
Those may also be the same theatregoers who would happily go and see Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the Old Vic, but be far less generous towards pantomime as an art form elsewhere.
However, if you want to truly learn about the craft of playing comedy in terms of timing and delivery, then attending one of the country’s many populist pantomimes can be instructive. There, old-school comedy actors and entertainers such as May McFettridge, Les Dennis, Paul O’Grady, Richard Gauntlett, Christopher Biggins, Brian Conley, Desmond Barrit, Gary Wilmot and Ben Langley show how it should be done.
As a relatively new company, Mischief Theatre has found itself in an enviable position with its year-long West End residency. It has rightly recognised that it need to evolve and be progressive before the Goes Wrong brand eventually becomes tired.
Groan Ups is a demonstrable step towards that. But it would be brave for even the most experienced company to be opening its new show cold in the West End – doing that brings an inevitable weight of expectation.
The lessons of what happened to the talented and experienced Right Size theatre company are important to heed. After various regional and fringe successes, and occasional short West End seasons, it scored a hit in 2001 with The Play What I Wrote.
The next show, Ducktastic, opened in the West End on the back of this success but overextended itself and simply tried too hard. The result was a short-lived run that became the company’s final show.
Mischief is now under pressure to deliver on its next production at the Vaudeville Theatre. Deservedly there’s been a lot of goodwill shown towards this likeable young company that has brought some fun to the West End, and a genuine desire to see it succeed.
However, for a company at whatever level of growth and development, after a big hit in the West End real care is needed not to stumble. Therefore, when embracing the exciting opportunities that follow success, it’s crucial to ensure that the lessons of both success and failure are not forgotten.