All of Mischief Theatre’s shows to date have had easy-to-grasp concepts. You know what you’re going to get with a show titled The Play That Goes Wrong or The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. But with Groan Ups, the first production in the company’s year-long residency at the Vaudeville Theatre, 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. In three acts and one classroom, we follow the same five characters as six, 14 and 30-year-olds. The intervening years see their relationships twist and change; the consequences of actions in their younger years magnify while the furniture shrinks around them.
Written by Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields and Henry Lewis, the show touches on serious stuff, such as inherited trauma and bullying; there’s even a storyline about repressed homosexuality.
It’s nice to see Mischief break out of its mould, while still playing to its strengths. There are some supremely clever moments of comedy here, brilliant jokes seeded and brought back with great skill – but it’s also a frustratingly messy piece.
The familiar Mischief ensemble takes on the five main roles: Sayer plays weird and weedy Simon, Lewis is class clown Spencer and Shields plays the subdued Archie.
There are also two brilliant performances from 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. Russell’s Katie is a straight-A, bossy type. Of all the performers she comes closest to striking the balance between comedy and character.
The show starts with the five actors playing toddlers, dwarfed by the giant furniture of Fly Davis’ colourful classroom set. They’re great at this. As well as their cute mispronunciations, there are jokes about school assemblies and nits. The comedy comes from the way they commit to the childishness – there’s no such thing as over-the-top under director Kirsty Patrick Ward.
Things get soapier in the second act, while the third act culminates in a (mostly) brilliantly constructed farce. The piece as a whole, however, feels uncertain of itself. The show wants us to invest in characters who are more fleshed out than in the company’s previous work, while also undermining those characters whenever the opportunity for a gag appears. It’s too comic for us to take it seriously, and too serious to match the gag-a-minute rate of previous work. This internal conflict is most apparent in the gay storyline, resolved so quickly and casually.
There are big laughs and plenty of them, but they sit uneasily with the straighter strain of the story. It’s not quite a case of Mischief Theatre Goes Wrong, but it’s not one of the company’s best either.