REVIEW: Groan Ups, Vaudeville Theatre London ✭✭

Last Updated on 13th October 2019

Julian Eaves reviews Mischief Theatre’s first offering Groan Ups as they start their residency at the Vaudeville Theatre, London.

Groan Ups review Vaudeville Theatre
Jonathan Sayer (Simon), Henry Shields (Archie), Charlie Russell (Katie), Henry Lewis (Spencer) and Nancy Zamit (Moon). Photo: Robert Day

Groan Ups
Vaudeville Theatre
10th October 2019
2 Stars
Book Tickets

When a new show is announced from Mischief Theatre, the same people who brought us ‘The Play That Goes Wrong‘, etc., hopes run high.  Yet, we need to be aware that, in its infancy, that break-through comedy was a rough-and-ready affair that didn’t get the laughs.  Only through a lot of trial-and-error work, in front of lots of small and out-of-the-way audiences, did it get perfected into the monumental success it later became.

Mischief Theatre Groan Ups
Henry Lewis (Spencer), Henry Shields (Archie), and Charlie Russell (Katie). Photo: Robert Day

The same process of development has, I would say, probably not been lavished on this latest piece.  Instead, this entertainment appears to have been hurried into the West End long before it is anywhere near ‘ready’ to feel at home in a large commercial house.  More’s the pity.  Writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields have an interesting situation – three scenes from the lives of the same five people, glimpsed at the ages of 6, 13 and 20-something – with some cute design effects from Fly Davis (set) and Roberto Surace (costume), all fairly smoothly meshed together by director Kirsty Patrick Ward.  And there are moments – brights flashes – of inspired comedy within them.  But, overall, the work suffers from the broken-backed feel of work in which many hands have had a part and a final direction has not yet been arrived at: re-writes, our spies tell us, are constantly in progress, and this is likely to continue through the West End run, which may well be a very good thing and help the show no end.

Mischief Theatre
Henry Lewis (Spencer), Henry Shields (Archie). Photo: Robert Day

There is some lively work from the cast.  In addition to the presence of the three writers, Bryony Corrigan, Dave Hearn, Charlie Russell and Nancy Zamit are here to bring the characters to life, and they have also contributed to the as-yet incomplete writing process.  Perhaps, fired by the presence of paying customers in the auditorium, they might find themselves inspired to bring the show into some sort of meaningful shape.  As things stand, what they have are a bunch of fairly unconnected riffs on what strikes us as a hugely over-expanded sketch.  The ear-shattering interlude music (sound from Alexandra Faye-Braithwaite) is just another symptom of a production that senses it is in trouble and is trying to deflect attention from its problems.

Groan Ups tickets Vaudeville Theatre London
Jonathan Sayer (Simon), Nancy Zamit (Moon) and Henry Shields (Archie). Photo: Robert Day

The main problem is that their chosen characters lack specificity or any impression of originality.  Their every utterance and action, therefore, rarely if ever attain any sense of freshness or originality.  One laughs a bit, one is amused a little but at the same time that one realises one has heard and seen it all before, somewhere, only probably done a little bit better.  The first act in particular rarely gets beyond the wholly superficial and redundant; the second act improves somewhat with more sprightly individuality in the playing if not the writing.  But a real point to the exercise-only seems to emerge, tentatively, in the third act, after the interval, when the kids are ‘grown-up’ (I have yet to grasp the need for the punning in the title, sorry, unless they are deliberately trying to write a tired and cliched tale?).  Here, there is a definitely Ayckbournian feel to the gathering of the once young, trawling through their collective pasts.  However, reminding the audience of another writer – and how well he does these things – is not necessarily the ultimate goal of a new play, is it?

So, the team are bravely showing us what they have come up with… so far.  It remains to be seen whether the public will be delighted to pay full West End prices for what is essentially an elaborate work-in-progress.

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