Loud, hyper and very funny – no, not a six year old who has binged on Haribo, but the best way to sum up last night’s performance of Groan Ups at the Oxford Playhouse. Mischief Theatre’s latest show puts the audience firmly in the world of its young characters, making for a bright, bold and buoyant night out.
Although the subject matter – growing up – gives Groan Ups its structure (the lives of five friends, from Year Two to their early 30s), the real core of the show is school, and the idea that our lives are shaped by those early group dynamics. It’s a familiar theme in the high school film genre – and many of those tropes are in good form here: the princess-type; the picked-on ‘weakling’; the class clown; the type-A swot. But Grown Ups departs from the high school movie formula from the start, because it’s key comic ingredient is having adults play the kids.
Anyone who watched the 'Harry and Lou-lou' sketches in Harry Enfield and Chums will recall how stupidly funny it is to see grown-ups playing small children, particularly in those anarchic moments when the ‘adult’ has left the room. Squealing, stomping, minor violence and tantrums might be less than fun in real life, but on stage it’s side-splitting stuff! In Grown Ups it’s made all the better by the use of an oversized classroom set – our ‘little darlings’ in yellow group dangle their legs from huge chairs, strain for door handles, and embrace the big, fluffy hamster.
When we revisit them as teenagers, the classroom has downsized, but the personalities definitely haven’t – and neither have the gags. It’s every bit as crass as the classroom humour I remember – truth or dare, gossip about snogging and clueless sexual advances all feature – and sees our yellow group gang becoming turbo-charged versions of themselves, as hormones run riot. Fans of cultural trivia also get a feast of early 00s references – perfectly timed to sync with ‘Y2K’ fashion.
When Groan Ups shifts to the territory of supposed ‘grown ups’ the mood darkens slightly – as we see the early dynamics played out with long-term consequences. Though still populated with plenty of laughs (most notably from the brilliant Jamie Birkett as a down-on-her-luck-actress playing 'Chemise', the fake girlfriend of former class loser Simon).
This is where the comedy of school experiences collides with the real unhappiness these can lead to in adult life. It’s not that there’s any less humour, but the (mostly adult) audience are no longer quite as removed from the comedy’s sharper edges. Going by comments overheard in the interval, I wasn’t the only one who had hoped to see trajectories change and the pecking order disrupted. Spoiler alert: Simon does not get to return to school as the hottest, coolest and most successful member of the gang.
In the closing moments we do get to see some self-reflection and the patterns begin to change, but the message is, ultimately, that we don’t change very much in terms who we really are – we just get to break free of some unhelpful patterns and beliefs. I suspect that how this lands depends on your own ideas about these things – it certainly prompted some post-show discussion on the subject! But overall, the show is so jam-packed with gold star comedy that it can easily cope with the occasional naughty sticker.