Theatre review: Groan Ups

Theatre Royal Bath until 21 August

Words by Emma Clegg

Groan Ups – another in the endless string of smash hit comedy productions by Mischief Theatre – may have an agonising pun as its title, but this production gets it right in just about every way. The mischief all started with The Play that Goes Wrong in 2012 – which won Best New Comedy at the 2015 Laurence Olivier Awards, has travelled to over 35 countries across six continents and is still running in the West End – and then continued with Peter Pan Goes Wrong (2014) and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery (2018).

Conceived by LAMDA drama school buddies Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, Mischief Theatre follows a collaborative approach between the three in each production’s conception and creative development. Their dramatic portfolio is based on a belief that “everyone should have the opportunity to break free from the shackles of everyday life and escape with us to a world of carefully choreographed chaos, merry mishaps and timeless comedy”. Yes, please, I exclaimed, dragging along a sceptical friend who was laughing out loud in the opening scene.

Groan Ups moves the format of unforeseen disasters, physical chaos and collapsing scenery within the …Goes Wrong format into more of a rumbustious slapstick offering with a smattering of observant comedy – densely packed with jokes, witticisms and visual humour, there is also a level of reflection on character stereotypes, the impact of childhood and the pains of growing up, with genuine (brief) moments of sadness, which makes the whole package more human.

Groan Ups moves the format of unforeseen disasters, physical chaos and collapsing scenery within the …Goes Wrong format into more of a rumbustious slapstick offering with a smattering of observant comedy

The five main characters are portrayed over three time frames – as six-year-olds, rebellious teenagers and adults at a school reunion. These individuals somehow manage to distil the essence of anyone you might have counted among your schoolroom classmates. Spencer (Dharmesh Patel) is the bright, mischievous trouble-maker who steals Smarties from the teacher’s desk and whose grades fall short; Katie (Lauren Samuels) is the clever one who aspires to a good university and a secure job; Archie (Daniel Abbott) is the closet homosexual trying to keep up conventional appearances; Simon (Matt Cavendish) is the uptight oddball who wants to fit in but never quite manages it; and Moon (Yolande Ovide) is the trend-driven, attention-demanding social media diva, whose ideas of success involve dreams that don’t materialise, always secure in the certainty of inheriting her parents’ wealth.

The set, a classroom with oversized doors, windows, desks, tables and chairs that initially dwarfs the six-year-olds, is covered in luminous schoolroom posters, artwork and spelling strategies, with the teacher’s voice broadcast over the loudspeakers. This Tom-and-Jerry format is crude but effective, and with a circular route around the set with two doors and a window exit, princess and superhero costumes, along with a series of hamsters (and a snake) constantly in peril, the opportunities for physical comedy are milked to the full.

All five characters play large on stage, with special credit to Dharmesh Patel as lovable but wayward Spencer who plays in a band but ends up working in a pet shop (ergo the hamsters), Yolande Ovide who transitions from privileged fairy princess to an adult version of the same, and Matt Cavendish whose portrayal of geeky six-year-old to self-important urinal salesman is a comic delight. The addition of Paul (Killian Macardle) who comes to the wrong reunion and can’t understand why no one remembers him and the sequinned Chemise (Jamie Burkett), Simon’s pretend Geordie girlfriend, invest further in the pace of the visual and physical comedy.

This production has had some fairly patronising reviews, a result I suspect of light entertainment snobbism and an obsession with layered plots. Live in the moment guys! Pay no attention; if you’re after a laugh-a-minute rather than conceptually probing, this is a winner.

Photography by Pamela Raith