Michief Theatre presents
Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer
and Henry Shields
Directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward
20 September – 1 December 2019
Groan Ups is a great title for a dark comedy that fuses feelings of mild unhappiness and undiluted pleasure in a play that deals with the problems of growing up and how their effects stretch into adulthood.
By stepping into such an emotional minefield, the creators of the hugely successful The Play that Goes Wrong and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery enter new territory and present audiences with a conundrum as to what exactly to expect.
There is the company’s usual appetite for quick-fire gags – verbal and visual – throughout; the playing is broad (and the delivery quite ‘shouty’ in parts) with the actors universally committed to squeezing every ounce out of their lines and present their characters sympathetically regardless of the situations they find themselves in.
But when the plot tries to add pathos to the storyline, things can become shakily unbelievable as we follow the same stereotypical characters as six-, 14- and 30-year olds coping with growing up under the influence of their formative childhood years.
Set designer Fly Davis revels in re-creating an over-sized classroom set that adjusts to normal size as it shrinks to accommodate the mature adults in Act Two, giving the writers – Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sawyer and Henry Shields free-range to engage in elaborate, quick-fire, plot twists.
As with previous productions, each has written a plum part for himself: Lewis takes on the role of lovable outcast Spencer whose emotional shenanigans create havoc among his fellow pupils and provide the engine for the farcical incursions in the second act.
Sayer carries off the bullied Simon with sufficient braggadocio to cover the cracks in his adult persona. And Shields delivers the most sympathetic of all three in his manipulative and emotionally-conflicted, Archie.
Caught in the middle - but by no means side-lined by the men - the girls are strongly represented by Nancy Zamit's precocious and spoilt Moon, and Charlie Russell in the role of Katie, the withdrawn, sensible member of a crew for whom future success seems clearly destined.
Although there are few mis-steps in the acting and Kirsty Patrick Ward’s direction handles the ever-accelerating pace of the farcical second half with enormous panache, belated revelations (spoiler alert) about Archie’s eventual outing are hardly surprising considering the hints laced throughout the play and he delivers his jarring diatribe of gay self-hatred in a tone that is both unlikely and unlikeable in this second decade of the 21st Century.
While silent groans should be the order of the day, the wrapt attention in which these ‘revelations’ are greeted underlines Shields' acting ability to overcome the emotional poverty of the writing at such a pivotal juncture.
Groan Ups is very much a curate’s egg of a production with which to kick off Mischief Theatre's residency at the diminutive Vaudeville Theatre and its season's commitment to delivering at least two more new shows in the pioneering genre that has made them so popular.
Review by Clive Burton
Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30pm
Saturday at 2:30pm
Sunday at 3:00pm & 7:00pm
AGE: Recommended age 13+