Review – Groan Ups, Vaudeville Theatre

Monday 14 October 2019

In the week where a new theatrical comedy, The Man in the White Suit, was met with general critical grumpiness you’d need nerves of steel to be opening another. And let’s face it you’d be hard pressed to come up with something more hilarious than Coleen Rooney being dubbed Wagatha Christie.

But then this is Mischief Theatre led by the writers/performers Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer AKA the Goes Wrong team who are already greedily hogging two West End Theatres, a playhouse off Broadway, various ones across USA with the tour of The Play That Goes Wrong, are soon to open Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Ally Pally theatre for a Christmas season, have a BBC series launching soon (with a second series already commissioned apparently) and now open a year-long residency of three shows at the Vaudeville with Groan Ups, with the second, a collaboration with Penn and Teller, Magic Goes Wrong, slated for a December opening. Phew. Comedy is seriously big business.

Yes, Groan Ups. Terrible title. Or is it terribly clever in a it-does-what-it-says-on-the-tin sort of way? If you’ve seen any of their other shows you know it’ll be big, broad, silly and often very, very funny.

Kirsty Patrick Ward‘s slightly over-long production get off to a very promising start with a laugh-out-loud school assembly address from a pair of teachers (Dave Hearn and Bryony Corrigan) before heading off to the classroom with a group of five shouty six-year-olds (the three writers plus Nancy Zamit and Charlie Russell). Shouty adults behaving like shouty children? Tricky one this. Haven’t we seen enough of this in Parliament recently? Initially they (the cast not the MPs), are quite funny – especially a sequence with a misunderstanding about a mop – but gradually sails dangerously close to being a bit tiresome. You may, like us, sit there thinking how will they sustain a whole evening of this? Fortunately they later become 14-year-olds and after the interval things improve even more when they appear as adults attending a school reunion and find out how their lives and relationships have panned out.

Act one is stolen by Zamit as a posh kid slumming it at a state school. Act two might be stolen by Hearn as a pupil no one else can remember but he’s underused so we’ll give Act 2 to Corrigan’s hilarious Chemise. To say any more about her character would reveal too much. Let’s just say she made us howl.

Fly Davis‘ (with a name like that she really should design Mischief’s Peter Pan) set gets laughs by doing clever things with scale and there’s the best urinal cake gag we’ve heard in a very long time.

And while we’re filling in Mischief’s school report card we must point out to the educated team of Lewis, Shields and Sayer that the lines “You’re actually sat on my coat” and “just been sat there” should of course be sitting rather sat. Time to sit them on the naughty step for succumbing to this heinous modern trend.

Big corny laughs, farcical misunderstandings, running gags stretched to beyond breaking point (we’re talking about a hamster gag) and more ham than an Iberian deli are what we’ve come to love and expect from Mischief. What we weren’t expecting was a toe being dipped into more touching emotional concerns. Seems like they have grown up. Phil’s partner wept openly towards the end, but then Brent can get lachrymose watching University Challenge. If Phil had something resembling a heart he may have been moved too.

Phil was reminded of his all-time favourite quote on a theatre poster for a play by Pope John Paul II (yes really!) which ran at the Westminster Theatre in the eighties. It read “We laughed, we cried, fantastic.” It was attributed to “party of nuns”.

We could pinch a hefty part of their quote now.


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