Review - Groan Ups at the Vaudeville Theatre
Kids are well and truly back to school, and it's also true of the West End. Joining Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (set in the fictional Hogwarts, beginning as Harry's son Albus enrols) and Everybody's Talking About Jamie (about a year 11 student at a Sheffield comprehensive school) now is Groan Ups, a new play co-written by and starring Mischief Theatre co-founders Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields.
Groan Ups follows five students from year two (aged six) and emerging teenagers (13 years old) in the first act to an adult school reunion some years later when they're hitting their thirties that comprises the second act. While earlier Mischief shows like their first and still biggest hit The Play That Goes Wrong and the more narratively-driven The Comedy About a Bank Robbery all floated on waves of blissful physical comedy, Groan Ups aspires to be a more observant comedy about the growing pains of youth that morphs into a more discordant view of their now adult selves.
Mischief may well be swerving into becoming natural successors to Alan Ayckbourn, at one time a stalwart brand of West End comedy, but structurally the tone isn't, as yet, as confident, deft or outright funny. There isn't, for one thing, enough real character development or depth.
Yet the comedy is amiable enough, as these accomplished comic actors wittily impersonate the kids in the first act, on a set by Fly Davis that cleverly changes size in relation to them, so that they're initially dwarfed by their school desks and chairs. It feels a bit like an undergraduate sketch comedy, with some jokes that land and others that are badly over-extended.
It is in the second half that Mischief are clearly embarking on new territory for them, trying to capture some home truths about the impact of our childhoods on our adult selves and the enduring value of friendships forged as children. But the constant temptation to go for big laughs amidst the underlying seriousness sometimes undermines it, though once again it is the irrepressible physicality of the actors that's the primary source of comic joy.
Groan Ups is the opening salvo of a three-play season, across a year-long residency, at the Vaudeville that Nimax's chief executive Nica Burns calls "brave, bold and bonkers." Though it doesn't fully land, it's a good statement of intent, if not fully matched yet by its content.
Groan Ups tickets are available now.
Photo credit: Robert Day