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The Comedy about a Bank Robbery review at Criterion Theatre, London – ‘ambitious and surprising’

Henry Shields and Charlie Russell in The Comedy About A Bank Robbery at the Criterion. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Mischief Theatre is one of the great drama school creations of recent years – a bunch of LAMDA graduates who have created an original West End comedy franchise out of humble fringe beginnings. Their first show, The Play That Goes Wrong, went from London’s Old Red Lion Theatre via Trafalgar Studios to win an Olivier award. It’s still playing at the Duchess Theatre and will soon be Broadway-bound. A second show Peter Pan Goes Wrong pushed the boat out (literally) and flew, with deliberate clumsiness, over the West End stage last Christmas and will no doubt turn into another seasonal fixture.

Now the company returns with undoubtedly their most ambitious and surprising show yet, The Comedy about a Bank Robbery. It’s an entirely original, yet also entirely borrowed, stage comedy that is inherently theatrical yet pays explicit homage to B-movie bank robbery capers.

The convoluted plot involves a giant diamond, deposited for safeguarding in an American hillbilly bank, and the already imprisoned crooks who plot a heist from their prison cell. But first they need to break out of prison — a task for which they are easily facilitated by their equally crooked guards who want in on their criminal plans – and then break into the bank. “What could possibly go right?” asks the publicity, though the show resists retreading the old ground of endless theatrical mishaps it does have its fair share of those, too.

Instead, it inventively mines something richer and more challenging: the character and plot-driven momentum of a farce that trades in stock types, much like Noises Off, but ups the stakes in terms of desperation. Unlike Michael Frayn’s play, it doesn’t quite become a metaphor for life, even if the stakes become, for many of the characters, a matter of life and death.

The trust in each other and rapport of the troupe, led by artistic director Henry Lewis – who also co-authors with fellow co-founder Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields – propels them to new feats of physical daring, and exquisite comic timing. There are times when the comedy threatens to become over-indulgent and over-extended, but it must be difficult to rein in the convulsive laugher of a packed house, so I’ll forgive them their over-enthusiasm.

Instead, I joined in heartily, and also give them kudos for borrowing from the best, with Robert Lepage-inspired set perspectives from David Farley which have us watching them dizzyingly from above during the final heist. No wonder the programme has a health and safety consultant credited (David Leach), right below the production manager. It’s a show that will have you on the edge of your seat: you’ll be rocked by laughter, then held in suspense as they pull off another nail-biting effect.

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The industrious Mischief Theatre scores a third consecutive West End hit