If we think about 1980’s comedy, we think of revolution. The alternative crowd burnt the rule book, and the likes of Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, Jennifer Saunders and Ben Elton barged their way to the front of the television queue. But some institutions are resistant to change. To look back at ITV sit-coms from the same era is to discover an ancient world of stodgy writing and ham acting. That’s My Boy, In Loving Memory, Duty Free, Never the Twain (which lurched along for 10 mind boggling years): these shows are the comedic equivalent of fossilised, Neolithic arrowheads.
I was reminded of the above whilst watching Groan Ups, the latest from acclaimed Mischief Theatre, who have enjoyed huge and deserved success with ingenious slapstick inspired productions like The Play That Goes Wrong, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, and Magic Goes Wrong. I’ve loved them all, so it pains me to have to write this review.
There’s no escaping the fact that Groan Ups is a disappointment; a play about school that rarely rises above the pedestrian, and doesn’t have enough ideas, depth or conflict to last the distance. It makes for two long and exasperating hours. At least Never the Twain was only 30 minutes (though all 67 episodes are available on an 11 disc box set, if you’re interested).
Groan Ups gets off to a tedious start, with the cast as a group of six year olds who’ve just discovered naughty words. This scene feels like a warm up exercise that should have stayed in the rehearsal room. An experienced dramaturg would ask the question ‘what purpose does it serve?’ None really, however the cast seem to be enjoying themselves.
Time shifts forward with the five school friends now teenagers but we’ve already wasted 20 precious minutes which could have been better spent building character, and exploring the ebb and flow of their relationships.
Simon (Matt Cavendish) is the geek of the group. He fancies the sassy, outspoken Moon (Yolanda Ovide, excellent) but she isn’t interested: ‘I see you more like a girlfriend with a penis’, she says, ‘a medical penis’ (one of the few genuinely funny lines in the script).
There are various unrequited feelings amongst the other characters, Spencer (Dharmesh Patel), Katie (Lauren Samuels) and Archie (Daniel Abbott). One character struggles to accept their sexuality. There’s a lame routine involving an escaped hamster which continues into Act Two – the school reunion with everyone back in the same classroom.
There’s no mention of how much time has passed, but as Katie and Archie are now married with children, let’s say 15 years. Possibly this is the most boring school reunion ever, with no music and little booze. It’s hard to believe nobody gets drunk. In fact, everyone’s stone cold sober; an odd decision by director Kirsty Patrick Ward.
The schism between aspiration and reality offers a rich dramatic seam. Nobody wants to feel like a failure, and we’ve probably all been guilty of lying and adopting a persona at some point in our lives. The most engaging part of Groan Ups is the sub-plot involving the insecure Simon, who turns up in a sharp suit with a trophy wife, ‘Chemise’ (Jamie Birkett). It quickly becomes apparent she’s an actress he’s hired for the night, and not a particularly good one.
Mischief is on solid ground when it comes to farce. Birkett is inspired in this role, and Simon and Chemise’s stilted, phony spats – she threatens to leave him ‘because you’re too much for me in bed!’ – add some much needed fireworks. There’s an amusing cameo from Killian McCardle as ‘Paulus the Walrus’, an ex-schoolmate nobody seems to remember. He also wants people to consider him a success, and gets increasingly desperate in his desire for acknowledgement.
If only writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields had continued down this route. I’m all for people stepping out of their comfort zone but pulling off the ‘bitter-sweet’ vibe takes care and attention to detail, something Groan-Ups sorely lacks. Archie and Katie’s marital problems are too sketchy, and Daniel Abbot and Lauren Samuels can’t be expected to do much heavy lifting with material this thin.
But with Mischief Movie Night currently playing in Regent’s Park London, and another Goes Wrong TV series in development, Groans Up should be considered a small setback. I’m still a fan. Whatever Mischief Theatre chose to do next, I’ll be there.
Groan Ups is at The Lowry from Mon 23 Aug – Sat 28 Aug 2021.