Mischief Theatre has found a magic formula to theatrical success and it’s that normally tricky cove, comedy.
Not your stand-up kind, not even the cleverly written kind, but the sort of inventive silliness that smacks your funny bone so hard that you end up crying – with uncontrollable laughter.
This anarchic theatre company, which was formed in 2008 by a group of drama students keen on improv and with a talent for physical comedy, has gone from obscurity to multi award-winning global fame.
It started with The Play That Goes Wrong, went on to delight family audiences with Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and now cheers theatre-goers at London’s Criterion Theatre with The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, an hysterically funny affair which does exactly what its title promises.
A new cast has taken over at the Criterion and that’s always fraught. Will they be as funny as the last cast? Will the mood of the production change? Will audiences be entertained? Moreover, will they still make us laugh?
I caught the production on Thursday night and the opening lines had barely been uttered when the packed theatre began chuckling. It took only a few more seconds for them to be roaring and that continued throughout the entire two hour show. It’s exhausting laughing so hard for so long.
Writers, and co-founders, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields have come up with a zany, madcap, cops and robbers heist about a group of bungling thieves and their inept police pursuers, which owes a lot to David and Jerry Zucker’s satirical parody, Airplane!
The grinning Miles Yekinni drops in one gag after another as the incredibly dumb Neil Cooper. His idiocy knows no bounds. Cooper is signed up as the getaway driver for a $500,000 diamond theft – even though he can’t drive.
The great big doofus turns every line into a literal gag thanks to a masterly script that cleverly plays around with words just like the old Two Ronnies Fork Handles sketch.
It’s a running gag throughout the show with the bank manager’s name Freeboys (not Threeboys) providing much jocularity.
Bank Robbery is set in Minneapolis, in 1958, and jewel thief Mitch Ruscitti (Gareth Tempest) breaks out of a top security Canadian jail, with the aid of bent screws (the Dibble, not the DIY, kind) to return to his home town and steal an enormous diamond that is being held – by an amazing coincidence – at the bank run by his girlfriend’s father, Robin Freeboys (Sean Kearns).
It goes wrong, of course it does, but along the way there’s fun from another running gag involving a “theatre-goer’s” wallet, the reputed dimness of Canadians, trouser dropping and mistaken identity.
It’s interesting to compare all three of Mischief Theatre’s shows. What stands out with Bank Robbery is a growing maturity in the writing and the slicker, more polished design for a show clearly aimed at mainstream West End audiences. They’re not exactly playing safe with it but there is less recklessness than in their earlier hits.
Most of the big set pieces come in the second act when a Mission Impossible scene sees Steffan Lloyd-Evans’ conman, Sam, dangling precariously as the gang try to lift the diamond.
Mischief’s initial outing, which still packs theatres everywhere, was experimental, rough-edged, fringe-style, daring physical comedy that seemingly risked actors’ lives for the sake of a laugh.
With good stunt direction anything can look more dangerous than it actually is but here the spectacle is created more by David Farley’s clever set designs and Mark Bell’s pacy direction. Even so, the cast’s timing and choreography is precision perfect.
Strip away the bells and whistles and you’re left with an old fashioned farce that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the silent movies. It made us laugh then and the fast-paced mayhem still continues to provide a night of pure entertainment.
Three years ago producer, Kenny Wax, tentatively invested in the unknown and unheard of, production called The Play That Goes Wrong, sending it out on a small regional tour to see if it had legs.
I was interviewing him about his then baby, Top Hat, when he mentioned the new one. I’d seen it and had chuckled for days at the memory.
“What do you think? I’m not sure if it’s good enough for the West End,” he asked anxiously. “It’ll be a sensation,” I enthused, and I was right.
The Comedy About A Bank Robbery is now booking at the Criterion Theatre until the end of October.
The Comedy About A Bank Robbery
Uproariously funny, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, is Mischief Theatre at their funniest with daring sight gags, brilliantly written dialogue, a 24-carat cast & a crazy Keystone Cops chase after bungling thieves.