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  • Flora Gosling

Review: Groan Ups (Theatre Royal Glasgow)

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

Seeing Mischief Theatre’s Groan Ups is rather like when a much-loved band puts out a new album that is a little…different from what we have heard before. As a company, they have made something of a legacy for themselves with The Play That Goes Wrong, a farce about an incompetent student theatre group who put on a disastrous murder mystery play, and continued their winning streak with similar farcical fair such as A Comedy about a Bank Robbery. Groan Ups takes a step away from the knowing meta-comedy of their previous work and creates a show about growing up and the crushing realities of adulthood.

Photo Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

The play is structured into three acts, where we watch our five main characters go from children, to teenagers, to adults meeting at a school reunion. One of the most impressive parts of the show is that the set shrinks with each new act; chairs that once towered over the cast at the start could be crushed with one foot by the end. But even with an enchantingly overblown set, it is overwhelmed by quite how loud these child characters are; stomping and crying and informing the audience in detail about taking a poo in the corridor.

It is an abrasive opening act that may make parents of young children think they may as well have stayed home. When it comes to portraying children on stage, or on-screen for that matter, it could be said there are three ways to portray them. From a romantic perspective, where the child is more a symbol of innocence than anything else. From a parent’s perspective, where no matter how much of a handful they are, the pros always out-weight the costs. And the individual’s perspective, where childhood is a tangled mess of embarrassing memories and turning points that lead them to where they are now. Groan Ups is in the latter camp.

And there is no inherent problem with that; even cringe-inducing child-like behaviour can justify itself with a compelling character arc. Sadly the characters that writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields have created are far too one-dimensional to portray any substantial reflection on what it means to grow up or to inspire curiosity about who they will evolve into. Stop me if you have heard of any of these before. We have a spoilt child who grows up to be a spoilt adult (Moon, played by Yolanda Ovide), a swot who grows up to be an unhappy wife (Katie, Lauren Samuels), a closeted teen who grows up to be a closeted adult (Archie, Daniel Abbott), a misbehaving drop-out who grows up to be an unmarried directionless slob (Spencer, Dharmesh Patel), and a dork who grows up to be a posturing alpha-male with an inflated ego (Simon, Matt Cavendish).

Photo Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

The last of these is the most interesting character growth, but it doesn’t make up for his insufferable whining in the first two acts. The stand-out performance of the show is Ovide as Moon. Her comic timing is impeccable, and even as she plays an overly flirtatious and popular teenager (the tropes of which have been worn into the ground), she brings enough spark and humour to steal the show whenever she is on stage. Patel has his moments but is inconsistent from act to act. He is convincingly chaotic as a child and seems to find his sweet spot when he becomes an unruly and love-struck teenager. In the final act, however, Patel’s performance slumps into a resigned thirty-something bachelor; not energetic enough to be reminiscent, not tragic enough to break hearts.

This speaks to one of the larger problems of Groan Ups; it is scared to step outside its audience’s expectations, which for a play about growing up ages it dramatically. None of these storylines break any new ground, and in many cases speak to outdated ideas about gender and queerness. Archie’s storyline will appeal to well-meaning straight allies, but it is a plot that LGBTQ audiences have heard all too many times before. The story of a cis gay man with an oppressive father struggling to come out is a widely palatable storyline, partly because it is so familiar. There is nothing subtle, nothing that portrays an underrepresented perspective, and nothing that intersects with other identities. It is hard to imagine a version of this play in which the roles are reversed and one of the female characters is gay, for example. It is equally hard to imagine a version where the teenage girls form a band as the boys do. They are granted a little more complexity than simple objects of desire, for example Moon has an imaginary business in the final act, but overall the roles of the characters feel stale; in their youth, their adolescence, and their adulthood.

Mischief Theatre have certainly broken away from what they have done before. But instead of braving new, unfamiliar territory, they have abandoned their niche in favour of…well it’s not quite clear. Where they previously dedicated themselves to mastering a particular genre of comedy, this way of story-telling is too pedestrian to be mastered. As a comedy-drama both the comedy and the drama are very tame. As a character piece, none of the characters stand out for their originality. The play has its moments, but at the end of the day, Groan Ups is perfectly happy to groan about the experience of growing up but seems to have very little to actually say about it. Two stars.

Whispers from the Crowd:

Thoroughly enjoyed it. Really funny.

It was good it was such a small cast. They were good actors.

Photo Credit: Pamela Raith Photography


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