Writers: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Director: Kirsty Patrick Ward
Groan Ups is the creation of Mischief Theatre which is well known for The Play That Goes Wrong and a whole series of theatre and TV productions firmly fixed in the genre of theatre going disastrously and hilariously wrong. Groan Ups, while retaining the comic spirit of past works, is a change of genre for the company. The conceit is simple, the play follows the lives of five school friends whom we meet at the ages of five, fourteen and as adults. The same actor inhabits each character at every age. It is all set in a classroom whose scale shrinks to denote the characters growing in size.
The play opens with a school assembly presentation where the five infants hilariously outline their socio-economic backgrounds along with clues to their future fate. Later left alone in their classroom of giant proportions, we see the group dynamics grow. The actors catch the body language and voices of infants beautifully. Only Dharmesh Patel doesn’t quite find the vocal quality of an infant, which is a shame as he is engaging in every other respect throughout the show as the cruelly betrayed Spencer.
During the teen years Moon, played by Yolanda Ovide, and Archie (Daniel Abbott) hilariously snog for the first time, all at once gross, touching and funny. Matt Cavendish’s mercilessly bullied Simon is excruciating to watch as he wriggles and squirms under an unrelenting onslaught of cruelty; and yet we laugh. We see interweaving teen love triangles develop and destructive jealousies emerge and yet the humour is never less than laugh-out-loud funny. This is all peppered with just enough of Mischief’s trademark slapstick.
The post-interval third act is a school reunion and our characters are now in their thirties. Most of this act is very much in the style of traditional farce, with multiple entrances and exits and inventive misunderstandings plus a random stranger who arrives on the scene. This act is full of echoes and call-backs from the previous scenes and the backstories all come tumbling together in satisfying resolutions.
Katie, played by Lauren Samuels, and Patel’s Spencer explore what their lives could have been together, “They’re beautiful the lives we don’t live”. The much-bullied Simon’s scheme to impress fails in humiliation. The happily married Archie is actually living a painful lie. The farce ramps up to fever pitch only to turn into devastating psychological confession and accusation. The mood seamlessly darkens: what was a childish threat of self-harm in the first act is now a threat with a wicked edge to it. The mood of the audience palpably changes. The only jarring moment in the whole show is a throwaway joke, about Nectar points, used to get us out of the darkness and back into the light and it feels like the moment you crash your gears in the car. It is brief and in a lesser play would go unnoticed.
The acid test as to whether this play is for you or not is: are you are prepared to buy into adults playing infants? If you can, this production is a rich comic delight.
Runs until 29 January 2022 and touring