Mischief Theatre have, quite rightly, developed an unenviable reputation for physical comedy in a relatively short space of time. Formed as an Improvisational Comedy Troupe by students at LAMDA 10 years ago, their first scripted play, The Play That Goes Wrong, landed riotously in 2013 and they’ve not looked back since. Quickly followed up by Peter Pan Goes Wrong, Mischief’s pattern of silent movie style slapstick with very inventive (deliberately) collapsing scenery, all brilliantly timed and energetically performed, have thrilled audiences in London, on tour in the UK, and on Broadway.
I first saw Mischief’s 2016 television adaptation of Peter Pan… and loved every second of it; just about the most inventive piece of theatre I’d ever seen. They followed this up with A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong, their first piece written not for the stage and, in my opinion, a minor miss-step. Funny, certainly, but it didn’t seem to hold together as well as their other work that had been developed and honed over many years of workshops and performances.
And so to my first sight of Mischief in the flesh, with the opening night of their first UK tour of The Comedy about a Bank Robbery at Birmingham Repertory Theatre. In a departure from their two previous scripted shows Mischief’s writers Henry Shields, Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer present a self-contained theatrical farce, rather than the premise of the previous shows being presented by the inept students of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society. This is, I feel, a small mistake, as the style of their writing and performance requires such an exaggerated quality to the presentation that is excused by the deliberately bad Am-Dram style production. Here a couple of the early scenes seem to creak a little under the weight of the extravagant delivery, until the physical comedy takes over and the play really finds it’s feet.
Mark Bell’s inventive production (restaged for the tour by Kirsty Patrick Ward) has a real bravura swagger to it, building up sight gag upon sight gag, so fast in the best scenes that you really are struggling to breath in between all the gasps of laughter. The sight of a pull down bed immediately brings ideas of physical comedy to mind. The breathless energy of the performers moves it onto another level entirely.
The uniformly excellent cast are led by Liam Jeavons and Julia Frith as the bank robbers Mitch and Caprice, who’s antics on the bed are witnessed by the hapless Sam (Sean Carey). His numerous comic efforts to leave the room only end up escalating the situation further. Neil Cooper as Mitch’s dumb accomplice Coomber is a delight, and Damian Lynch’s bank manager Robin Freeboys ( his nephew Roger Freeboys also appears; yes the verbal humour is quite happy to be amusingly lavatorial) is wonderfully pompous and confused. Best of all is Jon Trenchard as 67 year old intern Warren Slax. Poignant as well as funny, Trenchard is also on the receiving end of some serious slapstick beating. He is also involved in the most inventive piece of staging of the evening, a scene where we look down on the office from above. I’ll leave you to try and work out how that is staged! The excellent cast is completed by Ashley Tucker as Sam’s mum Ruth, leading the shows frequent 50s style do-wop numbers with very stylish vocals; Killian Macardle as the well meaning but unfortunate cop Shuck; and George Hannigan as “Everyone Else”, his official programme title. This does not do him justice. The one-man-playing-3-characters-having-a-fight slapstick scene is an utter delight.
The script is sometimes not as funny as it would like to be; one early scene, which very little physical comedy, does drag. But once the Marx Brothers style humour takes over the show really picks up, and Act 2 is nothing short of inspired. The cast perform with such confidence, energy and trust in each other and the material that you cannot help but get taken by them on a very very silly journey of inspired lunacy. The press night audience greeted the show with great warmth, and the 12 year old Junior Reviewer with me stated that it was, without doubt, the best thing she’d ever seen. High praise indeed!!
The Comedy about a Bank Robbery is at Birmingham Rep until 8th September, and then on tour around the UK until June 2019.
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