Success in theatre rarely comes as swift as it has for Mischief Theatre. Thanks to huge hits The Play That Goes Wrong, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery and Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the company has gone from pub theatres to international fame in little over a decade. There’s a BBC TV series on the horizon as well.
Right now, they’re colonising another West End Theatre, taking up residence in the Vaudeville with a series of brand-new shows. Magic Goes Wrong, created with legendary magicians Penn and Teller, is on its way in the new year, but first up it’s Groan Ups, a time-hopping, classroom-set comedy about ageing.
It’s written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields – the trio behind all three of the troupe’s previous triumphs – and features several of the company’s core cast. It’s directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward, and is currently booking until early December.
Does Mischief Theatre have another hit on its hands? Or does it all go wrong for the makers of The Play That Goes Wrong? Is Groan Ups going to make the critics groan?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Both The Play That Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery do pretty much what they say on the tin. But with Groan Ups, it’s less clear what to expect.
“What it turns out to be is a combination of all of the company’s comedy talents mixed up and pasted over a plot from Grange Hill,” writes Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★). “In three acts and one classroom, we follow the same five characters as six, 14 and 30-year-olds.”
That’s the idea, but critics can’t really get on board with the concept. For several, the problem is one of tone. It’s “not quite a full-on gagfest”, according to Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★), but it’s “too broad to sustain its aspirations to be something more substantial”.
“The constant temptation to go for big laughs amid the underlying seriousness sometimes undermines it,” agrees Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★), while Bano points out: “It’s too comic for us to take it seriously, and too serious to match the gag-a-minute rate of previous work.”
For Nick Curtis (Evening Standard, ★★), it’s “overwhelmed by frantic histrionics and bawling” and “the characters are stereotypes”, while for Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★), it’s “overshadowed by works that have ploughed the same theatrical furrow”.
“They are a fundamentally likeable bunch,” says Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★). “But they blunder way outside their comfort zone with the child acting in the first half and again with the bittersweet dramedy stuff in the second, and it just doesn’t work.”
Some critics, though, can’t help but grin at Groan Ups. They like it, with caveats. First and foremost, they say, Mischief Theatre should be applauded for its ambition.
“Mischief Theatre could have kicked off its year-long residency in the West End by sitting back on its laurels,” writes Alex Wood (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★). “But by challenging themselves, pulling back (slightly) on the gags and injecting a sense of genuine pathos into their work, the creative team have really proven themselves top of the class.”
“It’s likely a lot of references won’t land with the same nostalgic oomph for those not raised in the 1990s or 2000s,” he continues. “But for millennials out there, it all feels uncanny – even the familiar buzz of an old Nokia smartphone brings back floods of memories.”
“Think of an amalgam of, say, Alan Ayckbourn mixed with Feydeau, and you get somewhere near the landscape of a terrifically likeable, if overlong, study of how we got here from there,” says Matt Wolf (Arts Desk, ★★★). “This is a play interested in behaviour, not just belly laughs, though it gets its share of those, too, and with a sharper directorial eye and a pruning scissors, a sweet evening would stick in the memory that much more.”
“The script deftly unites moments broad and silly with elements wistful and serious within a simple structure,” says Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★). “Yes, the scenario is a bit scribbled on a bus, trades on stereotypes, and gag-wise has its share of groaners.
“Yet aside from showcasing Mischief’s rare facility for generating mirth and turning the stage into a zestful playground, it suggests a growing maturity of artistic ambition.”
Mischief Theatre is something of a big family – the same troupe of cast and creatives has been involved with most of its shows so far. All three of Groan Ups’ authors – Lewis, Sayer and Shields – perform and are largely lauded.
“The three writers – Lewis as the lovably maladroit Spencer, Shields as the apprehensive Archie, and Sayer as the eternal outsider – are all good,” says Billington, while Cavendish has particular praise for Sayer. He gives “a show-stealing, high-squealing turn as the bullied no-hoper Simon”.
The other cast-members are also applauded – especially Nancy Zamit and Charlie Russell. “Zamit plays the fantastically funny Moon, a posh girl who’s only at state school because daddy thinks she should experience life among normal people,” explains Bano. “Russell’s Katie is a straight-A, bossy type. Of all the performers she comes closest to striking the balance between comedy and character.”
Both performances are “brilliant” according to Bano, and in fact only Curtis has a bad word to say about any of the actors. “The supposed sexual appeal of Spencer (Henry Lewis) is inexplicable,” he says, “and Jonathan Sayer’s Simon is so gratingly whiny I wanted to bully him myself.”
It definitely isn’t made of the same smash-hit material as The Play That Goes Wrong or The Comedy about a Bank Robbery, that’s for sure. Beyond that, Groan Ups is a decidedly divisive show – and the star ratings reflect that.
Some critics think that Mischief Theatre have admirably advanced out of their comfort zone and concocted a flawed but funny and emotional examination of ageing. Others, though – the majority, in truth – think Groan Ups is much more of a flop. The show is structurally squiffy, trades in stereotypes and struggles to capture the humour and the hubris it’s aiming at.
It gets a pass from some critics. For most, though, it’s a certified fail.