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REVIEW: Groan Ups at The Everyman in Cheltenham

REVIEW: Groan Ups at The Everyman in Cheltenham

REVIEW: Groan Ups at the Everyman Theatre
The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
A Mischief Theatre production
Monday, 4 October 2021

Rating: ★★

As everyone knows, the school playground is a Theatre of Cruelty.  Just ask the kid in the year below me, who lost an eye in a firework accident and was promptly nicknamed “Banger”.  (“Oi, Banger!  Aye-aye!!”)  Or ask the author of this review, who (for reasons I needn’t explain to anyone over 60) was known to pupils and teachers as “Ena”.  (“Oi, Ena!  Where’s your hairnet?!”)  Best years of our lives?  More like the beastliest.

The writers of Groan Ups – Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields – who (together with other LAMDA graduates) co-founded Mischief Theatre, have taken the universal experience of education-based trauma and alchemised it into light entertainment.  The play explores the proposition that schoolchildren are shrewder than Freud and crueller than de Sade, and that you are stuck for life with your classroom role.  “Character is destiny!” proclaimed ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus.  “Twaddle!” runs the counter-argument.  “Your maths set, your first crush, your position on the bully/victim continuum: these are your destiny!”

If you’re familiar with Mischief’s oeuvre, you’ll know what to expect of Groan Ups: broad farce, slapstick and gags galore: hugely entertaining, but without the pungency of John Godber, Willy Russell or even Alan Ayckbourn.  That being said, Groan Ups confounds expectations by attempting to grapple with serious themes: namely love, forgiveness and reconciliation.  The action of the play follows five main characters through three life-stages: first, as infants on the cusp between Thomas the Tank Engine and red-caped superheroes; next, as teenagers, all Truth-or-Dare and raging hormones; and finally at a school reunion, as adults but not necessarily grown-ups.  At the expense of a certain amount of dramatic tension, the developments of the final act are clearly signalled by the characters’ previous experiences: a covert love-triangle; a lack of parental attention; unacknowledged sexual attraction; peer-group contempt; a life-altering act of betrayal.

For me, the spine of the show was the blokeish-but-tender relationship between bright, gentle Archie (Daniel Abbott) and hyperactive underachiever Spencer (Dharmesh Patel).  Attention-seeker Moon (Yolande Ovide), a daddy’s-little-princess, was always amusing, particularly when teaching a seduction technique that resulted in minor injury.  Swotty Katie (Lauren Samuels) was especially moving when, in adulthood, her long-held illusions were shattered.  Social outcast Simon (Matt Cavendish) was a shrill-voiced, tormented misfit, desperate for the esteem of his peers.  However, these were all in danger of being upstaged by the breathtakingly broad performances of Jamie Burkett as wooden actress Chemise and Killian Macardle as larger-than-life personality Paul.

As one would expect of a Misfit production, the play was laugh-out-loud funny.  I enjoyed the humorous grace notes, such as a hamster called Vincent van Fluff and a fish called Dale Winton.  (I’d have gone with Jackson Pollock, but what do I know?)  The running gag involving a succession of class pets was well sustained, as was Spencer’s intermittent triggering of a video about the reproductive cycle of a salmon.  The funny, painful truth of teenage sexuality was perfectly captured in the line, “I know you’re scared of my body.  That’s okay.  I am too”.

I’m not sure that Groan Ups succeeded in demonstrating that our adulthoods are substantially determined by our schooling – but it did make me laugh while reflecting on my own experiences.  I was teacher’s pet.  I was secretly pleased with my nickname.  I had a fight with John Roberts, and lost.  I was moderately popular.  I didn’t challenge anyone for calling Banger “Banger”, even though I could see it hurt his feelings.  Who were you?

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (including interval)

Groan Ups runs at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, until Saturday 9 October 2021.

Paul Sharples
Explore Gloucesstershire
5  October 2021

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