Review: Groan Ups (Vaudeville Theatre)

Mischief Theatre returns to the West End with this new classroom comedy

Henry Lewis and Henry Shields in Groan Ups
Henry Lewis and Henry Shields in Groan Ups
© Robert Day

The Mischief Theatre company, probably best known for displaying finely honed comedy chops in the Goes Wrong franchise (a new one, Magic Goes Wrong, opens in the West End this Christmas) is back with its first brand new London stage show since 2015 – in what is a complete novelty and utter joy. Unlike the metatheatrical mayhem of their debut The Play That Goes Wrong, Mischief's Groan Ups goes back to the classroom and follows five school kids at three different stages in their lives (ages six, 14 and 30, with the final scene set during a school reunion).

Each is played by the same actor, Mischief's veterans – Henry Lewis, Nancy Zamit, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields – with designer Fly Davis transforming a comedically oversized nursery set into an all-too-familiar garish state comp across the three scenes. There's even an interactive whiteboard by the end.

The idea of adults playing twee toddlers and teens is hardly new – one need only look at Chris Goode's Monkey Bars or Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills. The novelty does wear off eventually in Kirsty Patrick Ward's production and this is the show at its necessary weakest early on, sacrificing the sniggers for the sake of sowing seeds for the final scene where various strands come together. After all – the funniest bit about going to school is having to remember the awfully idiotic things you did while there – classroom comedy equals tragic teenage behaviour plus time.

What is impressive for a troupe of comedy actors is just how much authentic chemistry ends up rippling through the show by the middle of the third act – Russell, Shields and Lewis have a heart-wrenchingly destructive love-triangle, and while the show never feels shy of stepping into caricature, there are some genuinely emotional moments. It's excruciatingly painful to watch your own school lives being played out with meticulous accuracy on stage. If the first act is something of a slow burn, then it is one peppered with frightfully accurate moments – the way Lewis screams "that canes!" when he gets hurt, or the hysteria around the renaming of Starbursts.

It's likely a lot of references won't land with the same nostalgic oomph for those not raised in the 90s or 00s (let alone the pitch-perfect soundtrack of cheesy bangers, from the likes of the Vengaboys or Shaggy). But for millennials out there it all feels uncanny – even the familiar buzz of an old Nokia smartphone brings back floods of memories.

Mischief Theatre could have kicked off its year-long residency in the West End by sitting back on its laurels – delivering the same slapstick skits that continue to draw in big audiences at The Play That Goes Wrong or The Comedy About A Bank Robbery. But by challenging themselves, pulling back (slightly) on the gags and injecting a sense of genuine pathos into their work, the creative team have really proven themselves top of the class. Four gold stars.