The Comedy About a Bank Robbery (Criterion Theatre)

This new show from Mischief Theatre is the funniest play since ”Noises Off”

Those fustian stairs down to the Criterion’s subterranean depths seem to invite Chekhovian gloom, but this latest offering from Mischief Theatre will have you laughing all the way to the bank.

The title’s pretty clear-cut, as it usually is with the '…Goes Wrong' crowd, but you still have to see it to believe it. The Comedy About a Bank Robbery ratchets up the hilarity from its opening pun-fest through trouser-dropping farce to an explosion of acrobatics and false perspectives in the climactic jewel theft.

Writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields push themselves – and half a dozen other cast members – to the physical brink in this night of spectacular madness. The story is drawn from a hundred B movies (plus Mission Impossible) and the gags are a shameless celebration of, well, daylight robbery. As the writers admit of their technique: "All you have to do is change a bit here and there and if anyone asks, you just say 'It’s a homage'". Well, I’ve never seen quite so many homages stuffed into a single two-hour show. It’s all there: recycled vignettes from Fawlty Towers and One Man, Two Guv’nors; theatrical tricks from Complicite and Lepage (minus the solemnity), and every American hicksville joke in the book.

Mitch Ruscitti (Shields) escapes from jail and drives to Minneapolis to rob a bank that’s managed by Robin Freeboys (Lewis) with his sultry daughter Caprice (Charlie Russell) and a superannuated intern, Warren Slax (Sayer). Plans are scuppered by an overbearing mother (Nancy Wallinger in a fright wig) and her light-fingered son Sam (Dave Hearn). Cue triple identities, hide-and-seek in a folding bed and cascades of laughter.

It’s the speed that’s the thing, and the daredevilry. We don’t get time to blink before the next moment of brilliance is upon us. They re-enact the end of Casablanca in a five-second sight gag that’s been casually teed up in advance; payphone boxes morph into guitars, handsets become windscreen wipers, a swivel chair serves as a motorbike. Scene changes are the best of all, with David Farley’s spectacular sets moving in tight-as-a-drum transitions.

Forget the Hatton Garden wrinklies: it’s the young turks of Mischief Theatre who’ve pulled off the bigger heist. The Criterion won’t be looking for new tenants any time soon, and with The Play That Goes Wrong encrusted at the Duchess while Peter Pan Goes Wrong returns to the Apollo in October, the team is well on the way to world domination.

A churl might balk at the breathlessness and the uninhibited stupidity, but the joyousness of The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is so bracing that even the farce-averse will marvel at the clockwork precision of Mark Bell’s direction. It’s the funniest play since Noises Off.

The Comedy About a Bank Robbery is booking at the Criterion until April 2017.