MISCHIEF THEATRE STRIKES AGAIN. HURRAH!
Years ago, a famous US television show called Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In hit on the strategy – as Ken Dodd had decades earlier, and still does – of firing off really cheesy jokes and puns, as lame as the oddly-famed Four Candles, but so fast and mercilessly thick that they become irresistibly funny and you had to gurgle along. The prison scene which opens Mischief Theatre’s new venture made me briefly fear that they would stick to this formula, hoping it would sustain a full-length play. Three to six pun-misunderstandings per minute hit us, including a reiterated “Neil!” making people kneel, and “I see” misheard as “Icy”. That sort of thing. I fretted. But this is Mischief, I should have had faith: that burst, to get the audience cackling, is only one of the multiple mixed-genre tactics in their farcical spoof of a 1950s heist-noir movie. It settles us down while our antihero Mitch (Henry Shields, one of the three authors) springs himself from prison assisted by various comedy officers and a startlingly athletic fence-vault, on the way to rob an incompetent Minneapolis bank of a legendary diamond.
This one is a departure for this well-hefted troupe, though marked by their typical leCoq precision, speedy slapstick and alarming physical fearlessness. Abandoning the “am-dram goes wromg” technique which won them an Olivier for The Play that goes Wrong and sustains their even funnier Peter Pan, this time they stay in stage character, classic farce tradition larded with some unexpected atmospheric singing (Elvis, gospel, dum-de-dum) and ingenious human props. The only deliberate sense of actorly struggle this time is in one memorable scene in the second Act, involving dodgy sideways aerialism I will not spoil by describing. The rest is a classic, albeit heavily embroidered broad ’n bandit plot, unashamedly retro at times. Because hey, they’re just not making 1950s screwball movies any more, and someone has to take up the baton…
So here’s Shields as tough Mitch, with co-authors Henry Lewis as Mr Freeboys the bank manager and Jonathan Sayer as the much-battered ageing intern Warren, who in a bald-wig and glasses combo looks eerily like a hasty cartoon of Will Gompertz of the BBC. Other seasoned Mischievites are Charlie Russell as Clarice the slinky moll and Nancy Wallinger (with a fine bluesy voice) as Ruth the amorous bank receptionist whose son Sam (Dave Hearn, a Mischief founder) lusts after Clarice and steals wallets and – Oh, look, you have to be there. Even if only not to miss the scenes in and around Clarice’s fold-up bed, a series of superb physical disasters, instant disguises and perilous tip-ups (how on earth do this company ever get through a run with all their limbs and skulls intact?). It reaching an apogee in an acrobatic accidental threesome, considerably more entertaining to contemplate than the one in the current injunction.
And so to Act 2: the robbery, with some breathtaking staging, lost trousers, more appalling puns, and fast and disciplined physical gags involving police paperwork and swoop-spec’d aunties which made me actually choke with giggles. There’s a recurring seagull gag too, which will stay with me for days in a happy glow of memory. And a nicely underacknowleged Beckettian surrealism in the stubborn inability of any character to notice the difference between a very big man with a luxuriant moustache, and impersonators a foot shorter and two feet narrower with lampshade-tassels stuck crookedly under their noses.
As a moody Sunday-afternoon old-noir-flick aficionado I also relished the Double Indemnity moment between Freeboys and Warren. It’s got everything a sweaty London evening needs: it’s daft and deft, pantomimic and parodic, physical and fantastical, pure pleasure delivered with dashing precision.
box office 0844 815 6131 to 2 October