Writers: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Director: Kirsty Patrick Ward
As Aristotle is purported to have said, ‘Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’ In Groan Ups, Mischief Theatre takes this idea and adds its usual farcical slant as we visit five schoolfriends at different times in their lives – firstly aged seven, then fourteen and finally at a school reunion when they are presumably fully formed. Along the way, we see relationships and personalities develop alongside the madcap physical theatre for which Mischief is so well known. The cleverly designed sets from Fly Davis help with the physical comedy – aged seven, the classroom is an alien place with massively oversized chairs, desks and doors providing challenges to the children. In an unlikely twist, the group are in the same classroom with the same teacher at 14. In this section, the set and props are nearer to normal size as our protagonists have grown. And, after the interval when they return to the reunion, we see them marvel at how tiny furniture is for children of infant age as the set is rescaled to suit adult frames.
At the beginning, the background and personality of each character are set out in their school assembly, themed around what they did at the weekend. Moon (Yolanda Ovide) is the noisy and later, outrageously flirtatious, shallow extrovert; Archie (Daniel Abbott) is the sensitive newcomer who has been promoted a year to join the established class; the less academic Spencer (Dharmesh Patel) is a bundle of unco-ordinated, well-meaning energy that inevitably leads to something going wrong and to most of the running jokes. Simon (Matt Cavendish) is the most awkward and introverted. He really wants to fit in but can’t quite work out the complicated rules of friendship and becomes the butt of the group’s jokes and casual bullying. Lauren Samuels is the thoughtful and intelligent Katie.
Before the interval, the seeds for the group’s adult behaviour are well and truly sown. When we meet the adults after the interval, there are few surprises as old jealousies and desires are brought to a head and, one hopes, the characters learn something about life – although that seems to be something of a big ask for some.
Ovide is believable as the OMG-crying self-centred teen desperate to be grown up but not quite sure how to be – even at thirty-something. Her highs feel exhilarating, while her lows are also well sketched. Abbott demonstrates well the dilemmas his character faces and one understands his actions, even when they maybe can’t be condoned. Patel plays Spencer almost entirely for laughs as he remains a ball of clumsy energy. When the script allows, however, there are hints of an altogether more sympathetic Spencer, one whom we find ourselves rooting for as the story progresses. Cavendish has perhaps the hardest task as his character at 14 will do, it seems, anything to belong, a task in which he excels. We can maybe empathise with him at the reunion the most as he goes to extraordinary lengths to break into the group but remains the eternal outsider. Samuels’ Katie is perhaps the most level-headed character with the most conventional story arc.
There are two distinct strands to Groan Ups. Firstly, we have the wealth of opportunities for farce and physical comedy provided by the three distinct scales in the stages of their growth. These are grasped impeccably in the direction of Kirsty Patrick Ward, the pace never missing a beat with the usual set of running jokes thrown in. This, alongside witty dialogue, leads to belly laughs all around the auditorium, at least in part as one recognises an element of one’s own youth in one or more of these larger-than-life characters. Secondly, we have the coming-of-age tale as the cast grows up, adapts and moves on – except that these five, in line with Aristotle’s maxim, don’t really develop with age. Essentially, the five at the reunion are the same largely two-dimensional caricatures as those seven-year-olds in Miss Murray’s class but with better vocabulary. And this is a shame as there are potentially interesting subplots as the desires of some characters seem, inevitably, to be thwarted by chance or design; these have the potential to lift the story above pure farce but don’t quite land.
For fans of Mischief Theatre, Groan Ups with its faultless timing, clever comedy, ingenious sets and slick set-pieces won’t disappoint – and that’s probably the point. It provides a largely undemanding and entertaining night out with some points to ponder: one which will leave all but the most hardened theatregoers with big smiles.
Runs until 13 November 2021 and touring