Writers: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Director: Kirsty Patrick Ward
The minds behind Mischief Theatre don’t appear to be running out of situations for their comedy just yet. After taking us from the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society (The Play That Goes Wrong and its follow-up Peter Pan Goes Wrong) to the Minneapolis City Bank (The Comedy About A Bank Robbery), along with their BBC series of assorted scenarios, they’ve successfully built up quite the CV.
For Groan Ups, their fourth theatrical production, the team has turned its attentions to Bloomfield School and a group of five young children in Year Two in 1994. The children, played fantastically by an adult cast, tell us everything they did over their weekends (or in some cases, what their parents did, brilliantly misunderstood and misinterpreted by the children), before running around, arguing, playing games, crying and generally making the universally recognised level of noise that 6–8-year-olds make. The play then shows us these same children as teenagers in 2001, full of hormones and pre-adolescent confusion and drama, before reuniting the characters as adults and seeing just how much they’ve really changed.
The classroom setting is a great idea by Mischief, and it gives writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields a lot to work with. The 1994 portion of the play with the characters at their youngest brings some brilliant lines for the cast to deliver and offers a lot of innocently insightful observations on how children view the world in their own charmingly naïve way. The jokes do seem to die down during the “teenage years” section, which feels somewhat less successful (perhaps just demonstrating that sullen petulant teenagers aren’t as endearing to watch or as entertaining as small children are!). Act 2 sees the characters fully grown-up, and a return to funnier material, although also bringing a more serious tone as they reflect on their life choices and who they’ve become as people, recognising the same traits in themselves that they displayed as sugared-up 6-year-olds.
Directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward, Groan Ups doesn’t have such a heavy focus on physical comedy as earlier Mischief outings; it’s still there (mainly through a series of unfortunate incidents with a seemingly endless supply of hamsters) but fans of things visibly “going wrong” won’t find much of that here. Most of the comedy comes from the dialogue and the performances and works well. Fly Davis’ set design is suitably colourful, and the clever use of oversized props to make the actors look like small children is very effective.
Like all of Mischief’s creations, Groan Ups sinks or swims on the strength of its cast, and this is a strong bunch. Adults playing children can look ridiculous or creepy if not done right but these five actors pull it off brilliantly, each one getting the mannerisms and wide-eyed innocence just right. This cast gels really well as a group and has great energy. Everyone does a great job, but Matt Cavendish excels as long-suffering Simon, somehow maintaining a pre-pubescent falsetto voice throughout most of the show. Lauren Samuels also proves she’s not just a sublime vocalist but is a fantastic comedic actress as well, as does Jamie Birkett who practically steals the show from everyone in Act 2 with her incredible turn as Chemise. A skilled actress portraying a really bad one, she is an absolute hoot.
The comedy may not be as “large” as other Mischief productions, and the “teenage years” section needs a bit of a rewrite, but overall Groan Ups is a success. Shining a light on the moments that shape who we become and asking whether we actually ever grow up, the play is an entertaining and witty night out and another success for Mischief. Bring on the next one.
Runs Until 5 March and touring