“You remind me of a time when I could have been anybody” Lauren Samuels’ character ‘Katie’ muses, fairly late into the proceedings of Groan Ups.
It’s a pensive, almost elegiac pause amidst the laughs and hijinks of Mischief Theatre’s latest, and a moment where the fulcrum of what Groan is and represents tenderly hits home.
A love letter to the whimsies of childhood, the faux-dramas of the adolescent, the fabricated smiles of adulthood, and overarching questions such as ‘do we ever really change?’ and ‘just how much did those friendships and relationships of yesteryear really mean?’, you’d be forgiven for not expecting a show that begins with five toddlers on stage joking about pooping in corridors and hilariously misinterpreting an infidelious parent, to mine quite such depth and profundity.
That’s because perhaps more than most of Mischief’s now-enviable, growing roster of stage comedies, Groan Ups brings a fair dose of subtext and clout along with the funny.
Yes, it’s funny. Very funny indeed. But whereas the comedy of their ‘Goes Wrong’ oeuvre are showy, side-splitting whirlwinds of mishaps, malfunctions, physical pratfalls and relentless disaster, the humour of Groan is generally more observational. Idiosyncratic. Reserved even? …Then again, this is still a show where an animatronic hamster shoots across stage, and the character of a young boy literally wets himself whilst threatening to jump to his death from a classroom chair, so perhaps not. But the point still stands that this is amongst the more measured application of laughs that have come from the pen of Jonathan Sayer and the Henrys Lewis & Shields (the ‘Mischief Trinity’, if you will).
The first sequence, set when our central quintet are rambunctious, young and full of that Year 2 Smarties energy (literally), is a fun, irreverent opener that not only sets up a surprising number of narrative and character hooks, but also allows the central cast, dwarfed by Fly Davis’ oversized chairs, desks and pitch-perfect primary school trimmings, to have a blast channeling the cheeky toddlers. It initially plays a little overlong, but much of the merit of what is on show here doesn’t become apparent until later on, when so much of the setups and character traits introduced pay full dividends.
Jumping ahead, a tenure to an end-of-year secondary school sneak-in sees the former sprites now moody, excitable, frustrated teens, and it’s here that some of the inferences sewn earlier begin to bear fruit. Simon’s (Matt Cavendish) desperate need for approval and his yearning for feisty, self-centred Moon (Yolanda Ovide) crash headfirst into playground politics and pubity (just how many pubes does he have?), Spencer’s (Dharmesh Patel) rocky, slightly insecure relationship with academia makes ominous bed buddies with all this talk of the future, whilst Archie’s (Daniel Abbott) general disinterest in his current relationship, pre-occupation elsewhere, and hyper defensive response to a particular challenge in ‘truth or dare’ start to point towards an inner conflict and truth that we as an audience desperately come to want see addressed.
The Idea That Went Very Right: Although not strictly their first ever work, it was Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields‘ ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ (an early poster for which pictured above, after it moved from the Old Red Lion Pub Theatre to Trafalgar Studios) that would begin a whole era of hugely successful, award-winning international ‘Mischief’.
Returning to seats for the third segment – which takes up the entirety of Act II – and we jump forward again, and it’s here where Groan Ups really takes flight, upping the ante (and the laughs) whilst still ensuring it makes good on the character and story teases tangled into its mostly light and upbeat vignettes so far.
Set at a school reunion for the ‘Class of 2004’ (N’Sync’s ‘Bye, Bye, Bye’ the latest in a series of period-apt tunes playing to frame the action), the characters, now in their early thirties (an age already described as ‘reeally old’ earlier on… no, I’m not triggered), the latter half of Groan treads slightly more familiar Mischief territory structurally, as the reunion of friends devolves into misunderstandings, physical capers, cross-purposes and other delicious courtings of disaster. A recurring series of fatalities surrounding a certain classroom pet, an increasingly over-the-top staged break-up, and even the recurring presence of a man flapping across the boards doing an impersonation of a Walrus, no less – Groan Ups seems to have been saving a lot of its bigger guffaws and madness for its madcap finale, and it’s a move that makes for a truly bonkers and frequently laugh-out-loud second half.
As mentioned, though, there’s more to the story than just the tomfoolery, and as we come to see how these lives of these five fascinating, unique individuals have panned out, how some of their foibles and character traits from as early as primary school have come to define them, Groan Ups does some really interesting pondering and waxing lyrical alongside its lunacy. It’s bluntly honest too, no matter what the scale and calibre of issues being tackled; from the brutal frankness of matter-of-factly stating that one of their number ‘just aren’t a nice person’, to the bigger and more dramatic moments of decades-long repression coming bursting out.
On paper, Groan Ups should be a tonal screwball and misfire, trying to juggle lofty themes of regret, sexuality with the likes of, say, multiple characters hurling an already-dead rodent at a closed window.
But this is the paper of playwrights who know what they’re doing, and Lewis and co. have established themselves as such masters of the farce that they’ve managed to craft it here into something that is both unapologetically funny and silly, but also possessing a hefty amount of heart and hindsight, too.
Daniel Abbott brings real nuance and weight to the torment around which his Archie pivots, always genuine and, as the show passes through time the weight of his inner conflict is always apparent, yet never overwrought or hammy. Yolanda Ovide is hilarious and suitably domineering as the bullish, melodramatic Moon, and does some disarmingly layered work with her come Act II especially (though her fantastically brash teen is sidesplittingly good fun in particular). Lauren Samuels utterly convinces with remarkable transformation from exuberant youth to a professional, somewhat sorrowful woman who has become sobered, almost jaded, by the realities of growing up and pondering ‘what could have been’.
Matt Cavendish brings his years of Mischief experience to the fore as the most overtly comical character of the bunch, the somewhat unfortunate ‘Simon’, whose attempts to redefine his self-image from the days of being the school loser are amongst the funnier and more cringe-inducing beats of Act II, and showcase Cavendish’ ability to dissolve into character. He’s aided immeasurably by an hilarious, scene-stealing Jamie Birkett, whose turn as Simon’s Geordie-accented trophy girlfriend ‘Chemise’ (she’s French, you see…) sees her randomly popping in through doorways to spout platitudes and homilies about her beloved with all the conviction and delivery of Siri but the manic energy of a Tasmanian devil. It’s a barnstorming corker of a supporting turn, and one that sees Birkett frequently threatening to steal the show from the fab five.
Rounding out the quintet is Dharmesh Patel as Spencer, whose everyman turn – be it as a naughty, even accidentally-lethal toddler, a slightly cocky teenager struggling with his studies, through to a more content (if mellowed) adult who appears to have settled on what life can offer (“they’re always beautiful, aren’t they? The lives we didn’t lead”) – are all superbly realised. Patel excels with both the comedic and farcical material he’s handed (see: the aforementioned accidental fatalities) to navigating increasingly complicated and weightier relationships and material with Archie and Katie in particular. It is tremendous work operating at both extremities and every space in between, finding humanity, sincerity and even pathos throughout, with Patel presenting a supremely engaging, likeable lead, whilst demonstrating masterful comedic chops to boot.
There’s a lot of extra relish sprinkled onto the already satisfying core of what makes Groan Ups such great theatre, too, and it’s all plenty thematic. The ‘period’ element of the piece is infused with plenty of trappings and nods of yesteryear, from era-appropriate ringtones and jingles, shoutouts to messaging on ‘MSN’ and even a neatly observed premature admonishment of the ‘selfie’. And witnessing the classroom locale (the show being confined to pretty much the one single room) gradually shrinking and changing with the times is a nice dash of visual symbolism for a world that always felt quite literally bigger and more replete with possibilities in the halcyon days of youth.
Groan Ups is not as achingly, relentlessly uproarious as, say, The Play That Goes Wrong. But nor is it meant to be. Its real gold glitters in the moments between the madness. And whilst, yes, there’s plenty to find outwardly hilarious here, it’s in Groan’s more focused, character-driven approach that it presents arguably Mischief’s most pensive, reflective and mature outing yet.
Ironic, perhaps, given the sheer prevalence of poo jokes.
A smart, affirming exploration of growing older, but most definitely not wiser. Mischief bring plenty of their trademark laughs, but a surprising amount of poignancy and heart this time round, too. Detention for anyone who dares miss it.