Mischief Movie Night (Photo by Pamela Raith)

Mischief Movie Night is a hilarious, 75-minute improv delight

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf
There's nothing like seeing old friends at holiday time, even if they're onstage. Or especially if they're onstage in this of all blighted years, which I'm sure many would agree can't come to an end soon enough. Imagine my delight, therefore, late one recent afternoon to enter the newly socially distanced Vaudeville Theatre and find the ever-wonderful Mischief Theatre troupe back not with Magic Goes Wrong, the Penn and Teller collaboration with which they were last represented at this address.
Their comic elixir this time is the company's time-honored Mischief Movie Night, a 75-minute improv piece that has been doing the rounds for years but which I had never caught until now. Because no two performances by definition can be the same, I can't begin to guess what future audiences may get by way of a specific title and can only report on the offering that kept my fellow playgoers and me grinning from ear to ear until a finish that, against all expectation, tugged at the heart as well.
The performance prior to mine apparently resulted in a spur of the moment concoction called Amishgeddon, set on an Amish commune, and one can only begin to wonder what Deck the Halls with Parts of Molly - a title from earlier that same weekend - might have proffered a gleeful public. With Jonathan Sayer's deliciously feisty compere setting the scene, playgoers tossed out ideas at the start as to which way proceedings might go. Some wanted a superhero saga, others a tale for Christmas. But it was the shout out from a doctor in the house - useful during these COVID-era times, one imagines - that led to a devised musical set at the Royal Surrey County Hospital and telling of love affairs gone awry and appendectomies gone wrong. (That last misjudgement was revealed to be a deliberate act of medical malfeasance.)
With Sayer interrupting from the sidelines ("I feel like we're an advert for why theatre should be closed again," he deadpanned at one particularly preposterous moment), we got what one clever audience wag titled The Phantom of the Operation: a giddy prospect arguably closer to the theatre world improv of troupes like the Showstopper! company than to any kind of faux-film. I mean, how many people fly any sort of flag for the movie version of Phantom?
For those of us who have lived with many of these actors since their comparative infancy with the (still-running) Play That Goes Wrong, it was heartening to see back in our midst not just Sayer, who reported that he is now a married man, but such Mischief stalwarts as the ever-irrepressible Henry Lewis as well as Nancy Zamit as the female love interest, Miranda, who at one point is hoisted aloft by her castmates as part of the finish to a romantic duet that, as per usual with Mischief, doesn't quite go as planned.
In a class all his own is the physically indefatigable Dave Hearn, here playing the nasty medic who, in an about-face worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge, was revealed to have a beating heart. I loved the "gremlins" (fellow cast members) who shadowed Hearn as he slithered gleaming-eyed about the stage, just as I loved an adorable new company member - well, new to me, anyway - named Josh Elliott, who was reported near the end of the show to be juggling a second real-life career as a doctor, which gives new meaning to multi-tasking just at the minute. Elliott must have taken great pride at the tribute to the NHS that ended up being that afternoon's takeaway theme: some real substance amidst the welcome silliness. 
The Goes Wrong team used their buoyant curtain call, the audience mostly on its feet, to announce their imminent Nativity special on BBC TV in time for Christmas, even as it was clear from the good will sloshing from audience to stage and back again that nothing can equal the live experience, either in their view or in ours. Of course, as this year's continued bad luck would have it, this show, like all other live performance in London, is to be shut down from 16 December as the capital goes into tier 3: the producers, ever-hopeful, have announced a Jan. 9 reopening, all presumably being well (or at least better) by then. Let's just say that you can't keep entertainment this fizzy bottled up for long, even as Mischief's beneficent comic hi-jinks increasingly seem a mark of sanity amidst a year gone wildly wrong.
Photo credit: Mischief Movie Night (Photo by Pamela Raith)

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