Writers: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Director: Kirsty Patrick Ward
Groan Ups represents a change in direction for Mischief Theatre. While it retains some elements of the slapstick we’ve all got used to seeing in pieces like The Play That Goes Wrong, this is a more serious piece. Although still a comedy, and with many laugh-out-loud moments, it also contains a message about growing up, about how we behave at different stages in our lives and about how the way we are treated can affect who we become. It’s set in a school, where we follow a group of five people at different stages of their lives – at six, fourteen and finally at a school reunion. It’s a premise that’s been tried and tested in many forms over the years, with varying success, so how does this offering from Mischief stack up?
It doesn’t get off to the best start, with a group of Year Two students telling the class about “What I did at the weekend”. It’s too long, although there is humour in the way we learn more about their home lives than their parents would have wanted, and their interpretation of what they hear going on at home. It’s no doubt a scene that every primary teacher can relate to, but it feels out of place in a piece which is, after all, about character, personality and relationships, adding nothing to establishing any of them.
Things look up slightly when we move on and start to see this group interacting in the classroom. We start to understand their backgrounds – Moon (Yolanda Ovide) the rich girl who’s been sent to a state school, Katie (Holly Sumpton, on for Lauren Samuels at this performance) the swot, Spencer (Paul Brown, on for Dharmesh Patel) the boisterous, ungainly one who has an unfortunate way with hamsters, Archie (Daniel Abbott) the bright but seemingly ordinary one, Simon (Matt Cavendish) the butt of all the bullying. They’re all stereotyped, but they are well observed by a hard-working cast, both in their early years and subsequently when we meet them again as teenagers, starting to dabble with sex and relationships. It’s a shame that a final plot twist that’s been hinted at earlier on here becomes even more obvious, though it is in some ways a credit to the actor and the writers that they have been able to convey something so adroitly that the revelation comes as no surprise.
The reunion is livened up enormously by the introduction of two new characters – Chemise (brilliantly portrayed by Jamie Birkett), a very bad actress who’s been hired to act as a girlfriend, and Paul (Killian Macardle), the one who’s so desperate to be remembered as the school ‘character’, that he ends up recreating his school-day animal impressions in an attempt to be recognised and admired. Everyone comes back together for what feels like the last time. Reminiscences are shared, regrets are felt and home truths come to light, with some moments of poignancy. Often interpolating comedy into these moments as a counterpoint can be beneficial, but here they feel like a distraction.
It’s creditable as a first attempt at something more serious than their usual farce, but it comes as something of a disappointment when compared to the end-to-end laughs and anarchic, slapstick comedy that Mischief has been so brilliant at providing over the years. They should decide what sort of piece they want to write, farce or comedy, because Groan Ups feels like it’s a bit of both and fails to really satisfy as either.
In the end, it will leave you thinking about your own schooldays, maybe with a mixture of affection and regret – and any piece of theatre that makes you think can’t be too bad.
Runs until 4 December 2021 and on tour