“Slapstick on its own is never more than fleetingly amusing. To really get the belly laughs, it has to be surrounded by character.”
David Mitchell – Back Story
The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, a new play from Mischief Theatre, is described by Artistic Director Henry Lewis as a ‘true’ farce. In this respect, it is distinct from their critically acclaimed The Play That Goes Wrong, and its successor, Peter Pan Goes Wrong. As actor Dave Hearn observes, the cast are in unfamiliar territory because “our relationship with the audience is pretty much non-existent”. Unlike their previous shows, there is no central conceit to guide the viewing experience.
They had nothing to fear; The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is uproariously funny. It is irreverent and energetic, with a versatile and imaginative set that lends itself brilliantly to unapologetic silliness. Perhaps most importantly, the script is not only very clever, but its characters are extremely consistent. They are desperate to fulfil their best laid plans, so when things go wrong, you really feel for them. Then things keep getting worse, and worse. And the belly laughs pour forth.
The titular ‘Bank Robbery’ is the brain child of escaped convict Mitch Ruscitti (Henry Shields), who, along with hapless prison guard Neil Cooper (Greg Tannahill), plans to steal a $500,000 diamond from the Minneapolis City Bank. The bank, staffed by truculent manager Mr. Freeboys (Henry Lewis) and elderly intern Warren (Jonathan Sayer), is a famously easy target; only securing the diamond contract after bank clerk Ruth (Nancy Wallinger) seduces Officer Randal Shuck (Jeremy Lloyd). It is a city of crooks, exemplified not only by Mitch but Ruth’s son Sam (Dave Hearn), a shyster and pickpocket, and Freeboys’ unscrupulous daughter Caprice (Charlie Russell), who cons cheque after cheque from a sea of oblivious admirers. When Sam and Caprice meet, they hit it off, and begin to envisage an honest life together. But Mitch is Caprice’s ex-boyfriend, and Sam, with the right makeup, bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Freeboys…
As with the company’s previous efforts, the play is written by three of its stars – Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. In the programme notes, Sayer comments that comedy writing (and writing in general) should be treated like plumbing, much as “– if a guy comes round to fix your taps and they’re still leaking, you say it’s still leaking”, it is crucial to put egos aside and recognise if something isn’t funny. The show is, for this reason, extremely finely tuned. The classic motifs of mistaken identities, punny surnames and gravely important tasks, “it’s important to make a good impression”, are combined with some quite astonishingly creative moments. Aside from the athletic feats required for the robbery itself, phone booths are used as makeshift guitars (it sort of makes sense in context), a laundry basket and office chair transform into getaway vehicles, and in one spellbinding scene, the set is attached high to the back of the stage, giving the impression we are gazing at it from above. None of these delights would be possible without Mark Bell’s flawless direction and David Farley’s sublime set design; facilitating the plays endless, joyous surprises.
The cast, many of whom worked together in Mischief Theatre’s previous productions, are a tremendously cohesive unit. Shields plays straight-man Ruscitti with a cool menace that lends real fervour to the heist, and depth to his increasing frustration at his incompetent cohort. Tannahill’s sweet-natured, fast talking Cooper complements this with unfailing Minnesotan niceness, and a devotion to his task that is unsupported by his intellect. Lewis’s Mr Freeboys is a consummate delight – an increasingly agitated stage presence with a glorious, Matt Berry-esque drawl. Sayer’s Warren is an excellent foil; a beleaguered milquetoast whose harsh treatment from other characters offers a healthy dose of schadenfreude.
The farce’s heart belongs to Sam and Caprice, whose relationship is supported by the actor’s easy intimacy and their sweet, hilarious courtship – you will never look at Casablanca in quite the same way. Hearn is effortlessly entertaining, conveying an air of perpetual bewilderment that compliments his highly energetic turn. Russell’s versatile performance is a testament to the strong acting abilities required of the best comedians – she brought the house down with ease, whether it be with a glance, or a complex mime. Nancy Wallinger is a delightfully capricious Ruth, and her soulful singing during scene transitions lent an authentically 50s vibe to proceedings. Jeremy Lloyd should be extremely proud of his West End debut; watching his Officer Shuck’s sanity fall away like so many pairs of trousers is a quite magnificent experience.
These core characters are gamely supported by Chris Leask, who has arguably the most challenging task, performing as “everyone else”. This includes three of Caprice’s admirers, who confront each other on stage, Mr. Freeboys’ dim-witted nephew – a security guard at the bank – and Prince Ludwig, the owner of the diamond, who comes to “save the day”. Mischief Theatre have already made a huge impression on the West End, and I am on tenterhooks to see what they come up with next.
The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is an exceptional farce, and it makes for a simply joyous night at the theatre. I feel enriched for having seen it, and I cannot sing its praises more loudly. If you have half as much fun as I did, you’re in for a real treat.