Photo: Pamela Raith Photography
I’ve long been a fan of Mischief Theatre and their, erm, mischievous brand of theatrical humour ever since I watched the BBC One screening of their family show Peter Pan Goes Wrong in 2016, crying with laughter as sets fell apart and lines were misremembered. I’m proud to say I’m firmly in the Mischief fan club, having seen nearly all of their work, but I was intrigued to know if their winning streak could continue with Groan Ups, a show that seemingly isn’t intended to go belly up?
I wasn’t overly familiar with the plot of Groan Ups before sitting down at the Mayflower Theatre and was admittedly wary about this change of course for the company. I also have a strong aversion to adults playing as children and wasn’t sure how much of this I’d have to endure. Was the writing of Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields strong enough to hold up over two hours without relying on the visual hilarity of a production falling apart? And for how long would I have to put up with grown adults infantilising themselves?
Thankfully, I needn’t have worried for a moment. Groan Ups is a very different beast from their other output but there are still a few trademark elements on show that make this a Mischief production.
The show opens in a primary school with five children from Yellow Group telling us about their weekends. The writers’ clever use of wordplay goes into overdrive, with the children innocently repeating the very adult phrases they’ve learned from their parents. A short bit with a mop particularly sticks in the mind but to say more would give away the joke.
From here, the curtains open and we’re met with an oversized classroom designed to dwarf the actors. The set from Fly Davis is brilliant – chairs too big for the children, oversized books in the corner, everything was pitch perfect.
A relatively quick scene change is covered by some government-mandated awards for everyone in the school before we then join the kids nearly a decade later as teenagers, on the cusp of entering Year 10 subject to passing their end of year exams. It’s the same room but scaled-down, sneaking in to drink blue WKDs and a bottle of contraband alcohol. After the interval, we meet them all as adults at a school reunion, highlighting the impact school life can have in shaping a person, for better or worse.
As with all Mischief shows, the founding company members originated the characters and I was keen to see how other actors in their shoes would fare. I’m very pleased to say the cast of seven are all fantastic and it would be impossible to single out any of them for praise more than the others. The central five in particular were superb, holding together each and every scene, sometimes at a very fast pace.
Unlike other productions by the company, there was a lot more heart and poignancy than I was expecting. From Archie battling his inner turmoil to the effect banter/bullying had on Simon through to Spencer’s wrong turns, the three main male characters possibly take the biggest emotional journeys in the show, perhaps not surprising given the gender of the writers. That being said, it was fun to see how Moon never really matured as she got older, and how driven Katie was for making something of herself. The romantic triangle of Archie, Spencer and Katie gives the play its emotional core and it was refreshing to see this usually frolicking company tackle some bigger issues.
That’s not to say there weren’t frolics to be had! Spencer’s increasing exasperation in the second act with replacing the class hamster stands out, with Dharmesh Patel delivering a brilliantly frantic performance.
My only criticism of the play is that some of the language used by the characters at their youngest wasn’t overly believable – they made for great puns and clever use of language but at times it felt the writers were trying to be a little too clever. And as magnificent as the set was, the whole of stage right was masked by a giant black curtain stopping us from seeing one of the walls – we knew the wall contained a window but we couldn’t see it. Being sat in almost in the centre of a front row and not being able to see one of the walls does make me question how good a view the rest of the auditorium had.
However, these are minor quibbles over what was a hilarious performance and another brilliant production from the hitmakers, albeit one with more genuine character work and emotional depth than they’ve previously shown us. Much like the characters in Groan Ups, perhaps Mischief are beginning to show a little more maturity? Or maybe they too will regress into silliness again – either way, I’ll be watching.