Groan Ups review – school swots and bullies for life

Mischief Theatre, who have become famous for exploiting theatrical mishaps, begin a year-long residency at the Vaudeville with a serious comedy about growing up. Instead of The Play That Goes Wrong, this is more a study of the life that goes pear-shaped. Penned by the regular actor-writer team of Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, it proves fitfully enjoyable but is overshadowed by works that have ploughed the same theatrical furrow.

The setting is a school room and we follow the fortunes of five characters as they move from pre-pubescence to maturity. We first meet them as playfully anarchic six-year-olds. Next they are sexually exploratory 14-year-olds forming emotional ties: in particular, the angsty Archie and the swottish Kate are both besotted by the ham-fisted, and hamster-destroying, Spencer. In the longest final section, they are all 30-year-olds attending a school reunion.

After a toe-curling opening that resembles a drama school improvisation game, the play gets steadily better as it explores the way the patterns of childhood are replicated in adult life. Even so its insights, such as that Archie is born gay but too nervous to come out, are heavily signalled in advance. Unwittingly, it is also full of echoes.

Drama … Charlie Russell in Groan Ups. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Dennis Potter used adult actors to play warring children in Blue Remembered Hills, Michael Frayn’s Donkeys’ Years explored the comic perils of educational reunions and Alan Ayckbourn’s latest, Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present, suggests our destiny is determined in adolescence. More adventurously, however, Ayckbourn goes backward, rather than forward, in time.

The piece depends heavily, in Kirsty Patrick Ward’s production, on its engaging performers. The three writers – Lewis as the lovably maladroit Spencer, Shields as the apprehensive Archie, and Sayer as the eternal outsider – are all good.

Charlie Russell as the earnestly ambitious Kate and Nancy Zamit as a snootily privileged rival are no less adept at showing that character is formed in childhood. It’s a tenable thesis. The problem is that drama depends on change whereas this play argues that we mature without ever growing up.

At Vaudeville theatre, London, until 1 December.

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