Vaudeville Theatre, London until 1 December 2019
I admit soft maternal feelings for Mischief Theatre – Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer and their confreres – because I was one of the first to spot the comic precision and élan of their Play that Goes Wrong, fresh from LAMDA on a shoestring and a basement. I have watched it grow, tour, transfer, triumph, cross the Atlantic and spin off Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and the Bank Robbery play. So I braved the plush red-carpet-and-XR hell of their West End launch for this: not a pre-honed Fringe lark but a new play tipped straight onto the Strand with more Ayckbournian ambition.
To my slight dismay, it shows the join. The idea – very on-trend in a stage year of Adrian Mole, Jamie and the awful Heathers – is to show us five schoolfriends at there stages: six years old in playschool outfits, subverting an assembly by sending up their parents, then at 14 breaking into their classroom with beer to celebrate end-of-year exams and worry about GCSEs while playing truth or dare and attempting awkward snogs. Finally we meet them at 30 at a reunion, nipping away from the fray to see the old classroom.
They all play all ages. There’s serious Archie (Shields), Sayer as the geeky slow developer Simon, and Lewis as a big bear of a lad, Spencer, at six on the verge of being put in “the Red Group, with the Problems” and at 14 fearing being “held back”. There’s the posher girl Moon, entitled and bitchy (the glorious Nancy Zamit), and clever shyer Katie who has a feeling for Spencer (Charlie Russell). All are veterans of The Play That Goes Wrong, honed in the bruises and split-second timing of physical theatre and absurdity.
But both these pre-interval scenes are too long. Amusing at times, deftly acted but sorely in need of cuts. With all these previously triumphant creators in the cast, it may be hard for director Kirsty Patrick Ward to tell them so. Maybe the fear was that a two hour 15 minute play would be too slight, and an extra half hour would add heft. It doesn’t. All these scenes need is to establish characters – they do, deftly and amusingly – to set up a running joke about a hamster (I now think of it as Schrodinger’s Hamster, both alive and dead) and to plant one key plot point for the denouement. They did not need to spin out the six-year-old scene so much (though I’d be sad to have missed Zamit’s superb tantrum), and as for the teenage years I seem to have scrawled “Adolescence, bad enough first time round, why re-live it”.
I suspect cuts will happen. Because after the interval it takes off , vroom! One is a barrister, one a pet shop manager, one a urinal-cake salesman so desperate to impress that he has hired a fake girlfriend. The sharp comic abilities of all five are off the leash, the jokes good (a fine hamster cage gag before the first line..) and enriched by the addition of the peerless Bryony Corrigan as the fake girlfriend in lurex, and Dave Hearn as the alumnus-from-hell partyboy nobody actually remembers. It roars along, with all this group’s honed skill in doors, hamster- substitutions and unexpected subtler laughs. There’s a moment of real pathos, and another one subverted with genius wickedness (O, Zamit!) as it swizzles into something more poignant“Aren’t they beautiful, the lives we never had?”.
You forget the longeurs of the first two scenes. And these kids know enough about showbiz to trust that we will forgive them a lot for Hearn’s walrus imitation and the final dancing lobster. Trim off some flaband it’ll run and run like a Captain of Athletics. Though it’ll be too Brit the Americans, and that’s another good mark. Good tickets in the, 20s and 30s range and so far no silly Premiums. Fun.