Writers: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Director: Kirsty Patrick Ward
Groan Ups follows the trials and tribulations of growing up, navigating the strains of primary school and the love triangles of secondary schools through the friendship group of Moon, Spencer, Katie, Archie and Simon. It is an odd choice for Mischief Theatre, the slapstick brains behind The Play That Goes Wrong, and one that unusually relies more on wordplay and less on their stereotypical physical comedy. Not entirely successful, the show, much like its characters, struggles for identity.
Upon entry, the badge of ‘Bloomfield School’, emblazoned onto the curtain, greets you, backed by a soundtrack of eighties to noughties school disco classics to throw you fast into the nostalgic vibe Mischief Theatre are clearly aiming for with this production. The cast are challenged to perform as multiple ages, ranging from infants to adults, and as a result the demands are vast. The exchanges between the characters’ younger selves drift almost to an excruciating level at times, and include a jarring number of adult jokes which feel crass. That said, the production soon warms up once the characters age further.
Yolanda Ovide’s bold Moon is the typical popular girl, demanding and demeaning to those around her and Ovide captures the brash and bratty rich kid character well. However, in moments with Matt Cavendish’s Simon, Ovide gives us glimmers of warmth and kindness too. Ovide’s speed, across the stage, results in some strong physical routines, though underused, including an excellent tantrum exchange during the first half.
Cavendish, as the downtrodden Simon, is the show’s standout performer and demonstrates a confident range when delivering both physical and vocal comedy. His tireless performance in the first half harks more towards a typical Mischief Theatre production. Simon‘s derided character does evoke some empathy from the audience which is testament to Cavendish’s portrayal.
Dharmesh Patel and Daniel Abbott, Spencer and Archie respectively, have a chemistry which works in chronicling a friendship which blooms as the characters age. The pair has an energy in their delivery which quickly establishes the conflicts both characters face as they navigate growing up and the pains that come with it. Abbott, in particular, explores a tender side, as his character struggles to come to terms with his own sexuality, which is notable in this piece.
Rounding off the quintet is Lauren Samuels’ Katie. Academically driven, Katie’s determination to succeed stands her alone among the group, and Samuels does portray a naivety and innocence to the role well. It is clear that Mischief Theatre are using stereotypes to characterise their protagonists, and all five creatively present these rather narrow roles with aplomb.
This is a strange production that struggles to place itself in terms of what it is trying to achieve. There are enough laughs to qualify as a comedy, certainly in a more Mischief Theatre-esque second half, but these are coupled with darker and sadder moments which feel slightly oddly placed.
One highlight is Fly Davis’ colourful set design which quickly throws us back into a romanticised memory of a school building from days gone by, littered with glowing displays and sparkly posters. There is a clear use of oversized props in the first half which helps to build a sense of the infant school setting too. This, coupled with the adult actors attempting to portray much younger alter-egos, does tap into the sense of nostalgia surrounding growing up.
There are enough laughs in Groan Ups to see you through the two and a half hour runtime, and its whimsical nature, in places, does carry a charm and warmth. This is a brave choice by the company, and certainly breaks the mould of recent successes. It is sometimes amusing, but rarely hysterical,.
Runs until 6 November, then continues tour.