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Brighton Year-Round 2021

Groan Ups

Kenny Wax Ltd and Stage Presence for Mischief Theatre Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields

Genre: Comedy, Contemporary, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton

Festival: ,

Low Down

This touring version of Mischief Theatre writers’ Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields Groan Ups is directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward, (Associate Director Katie-Annn McDonough) with Fly Davis Set Design (Associate Designer Camille Etchart), Christopher Nairne Lighting Design, with Roberto Surace’s costumes. Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s Sound Design and Compositions (Associate Sound Designer Russell Ditchfield). Till November 27th.


A game of two mischiefs? Last week Mischief Theatre’s touring The Play That Goes Wrong returned to the Theatre Royal Brighton with remarkably little loss of life. Groan Ups is the same writers’ 2019 break-out from old formulas that keep returning despite themselves, usually for the good. And it really is a game of two halves, two plays.

So you’ve always wondered what a school reunion ten, twenty years down the burn-uniform line might be like? You haven’t? Can’t win you all then. For those who do there’s a long programme discussion about six types of people returning when there’s really five protagonists several of whom fit into the same category.

First night has its perils: both acts opened late with a scene-change taking an age. Nevertheless the audience by then had no idea how Groan Ups leaps of age as a real play. It’s not what we expect at all. The effect’s more humanly profound and touching than any Mischief Theatre work preceding it.

First act’s an overlong setting-up to that reunion. 1994, we’re told by the teachers’ voices (Killian MacArdle, Jamie Birkett) as the five  primary-age schoolchildren say what they did on their weekend. There’s quite a lot of backstory in this, where bright Katie’s father says ‘he would’ sleep with every other woman mentioned, according to his daughter, who’s not quite sure of what this means till her mother finds out. Little of this is developed though.

We get privileged Moon (Yolanda Ovide) whose father thinks she should rough it in a comp, saves money. There’s Dharmesh Patel’s hamster-flattening hyperactive Spencer, Lauren Samuels’ uber-swot Katie with a heart, and Daniel Abbott’s bouncy clever Archie, promoted up a year, reaching for malapropisms when he can’t quite snatch the right word. Finally there’s Matt Cavendish’s hapless Simon, howling for Moon, howled at by the class who proceed to cruelty which Cavendish makes painful to watch in registering his bewildered sense of betrayal.

The second part of the act’s Year 9, where more complex strands of being 14 rear up, like sexual identity and discovering someone else’s exam paper. Ovide’s splendid princess-y Moon carries more than a torch for Archie, who despite tongues clearly isn’t interested. That other rising star Katie really likes Spencer, yet again despite himself flattening a hamster. Were 14-year-olds really like this after the 1970s?

It’s all a prelude to the real play we’re launched into with a reunion some ten years after they’ve graduated. We’re perpetually interrupted by McArdle’s Paul whom no-one remembers, returning for a reunion with ever more outlandish dress and demands, moving from bumptious laughter to near mania. There’s a reason he’s not remembered. Classic Mischief.

Ovide’s Moon asserts her restaurant’s doing well, with her partner Mark, though breaks up with him every so often. She’s not so well developed in this act. Cavendish’s Simon beings a prop, Birkett’s Chemise, his impressive girlfriend. Still, with Chemise repeating the same lines at right and wrong moments to frantically-increasing Mischief pace, who’s trying to impress here? Seeing Moon, Simon tries putting everything in reverse with a new script.

This is where Mischief get it right. There’s a serious focus on an emerging triangle of secrets between Spencer Katie and Archie, whilst Moon, Simon, and the characters of Chemise and satellite-returning Paul ratchet up hysterics around them. Hamsters feature, several, and despite wild gestures what we end with is truth and some reconciliation. It’s not comedy at all and you now wonder what life, not Mischief will do with these characters in particular.

Directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward, Fly Davis’ set design of three classrooms is cleverly calibrated to appear too large for the primary school kids, normal for Year 9, and dwarfed for adults; all seem oddly bright and primary school. There’s a nod to latter-day smart-boarding when a salmon-mating film explodes into life when someone sits on the console. Christopher Nairne’s steady lighting design evokes the terrible predictability of neon, with Roberto Surace’s costumes flitting between school and dowdy adulthood.

Who’s married, who’s not, what jobs they have, what new webs reft from old ones will tangle into the reunion, is worth finding out. The actors are exemplary, with no weak links. Cavendish revels in the hardest role, and MacArdle impresses as the farcical Paul, just as Birkett’s Chemise swings round with equal Mischief pedigree. Ovide, Patel, Samuels and Abbott though bring serious acting chops to their groan-up characters.

This is what’s worth coming to Groan Ups for. The first act could be trimmed, however that unbalances the work. It’s somehow underwritten, neither play nor classic Mischief; only in its final minutes do we see what might lie ahead. What does lie ahead though makes us wonder what Mischief’s writers might try next.